Recognizing and overcoming bias in the workplace

June 14, 2020

Addressing implicit bias and the need to consciously avoid acting on those biases is a key part of creating a respectful and civil workplace.

During a training session last year about ways to prevent and immediately eliminate obvious acts of discrimination, a woman approached me to tell me her “problem” was that she didn’t see color or race. Pointing to the man standing next to her, she said, “For example, I don’t even notice that he is Indian.”

People like this woman want to believe that they are free of bias, but those are the most dangerous employees of all.

If they don’t see it or recognize it, then they can’t stop it.

The reality is that our brain is wired to make immediate judgments and assumptions about what we see, and many of those conclusions are based on life experiences.

Whether gender, race, national origin, age, socio-economic status and the like, we notice people, what they are wearing, how they are groomed and how they communicate.

Then we make judgments that are favorable or unfavorable depending on our life experiences and general opinions.

During my civility training I show a video of an NFL player taking questions from reporters. When a female reporter asks a question about a teammate’s routes, the player smirks and says something about it being funny to hear a female talk about routes.

That NFL player’s life experience was that he was not used to women talking about football plays, and that life experience guided his comments.

Possessing that life experience is not the issue. The problem is he articulated that bias and acted upon it.

George Floyd’s death and the recent events around it have given black employees an opportunity to share their experiences in the workplace. Many have demonstrated they have suffered outright discrimination and harassment as well as behaviors that were probably not intended to be offensive but were offensive nonetheless. Some people refer to these instances as “microaggressions.”

In some sense, it should be easy to eradicate intentional misconduct, yet we are still addressing this behavior today.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced earlier this month that it was suing a New York construction company for race discrimination after alleging that white supervisors subjected black employees to racist comments and racial slurs, threatened black employees with nooses, and subjected them to harsher working conditions than white co-workers.

According to the EEOC, the allegations include a white supervisor telling a black employee that for Halloween, “You don’t even have to dress up. I will dress in white and put a noose around your neck, and we’ll walk down the street together.”

If this doesn’t hurt your heart and make you angry, you’re not ready for the 2020 workplace where, hopefully, we will finally put an end to this type of discriminatory harassment.

Beyond blatant discriminatory behaviors as outlined in the EEOC case, our workplaces must also address implicit bias that could be impacting relationships with colleagues and/or decisions about hiring, training, opportunity, discipline and promotions.

It’s difficult to get someone to understand implicit bias, and it’s admittedly uncomfortable.

To take the first step, Harvard offers a free Project Implicit program where participants can take a series of Implicit Association Tests to determine if a hidden bias for certain characteristics exist.

In addition to attitudes on race, these tests can also determine hidden biases based on gender, sexuality, weight, disability, religion, age and more. The tests can be taken anonymously and accessed at:

We cannot legislate our way around the biases that exist for our employees — employers must actively engage and address the need for fair and equal treatment in all aspects of employment as part of the culture of an organization.