While most people understand what it means to be explicitly biased, implicit biases are often overlooked. Yet, this type of bias is more prevalent and, in most cases, harder to prevent through legal recourse. Perhaps because all humans have implicit biases, they have gained more attention in recent times, and rightfully so, as implicit biases affect day-to-day life both inside and outside the workplace. Implicit biases are unintentional subliminal beliefs or attitudes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner.

Why do people have implicit biases, and why do they matter?

Implicit biases develop from a human need to process an abundance of information quickly in order to make quick decisions. To process that information more efficiently, the brain uses shortcuts to find connections between bits of information. Unfortunately, these shortcuts often lead to harmful stereotypes when applied to people. Allowing implicit biases and negative stereotypes to run rampant in the workplace is harmful and very likely to reduce the diversity of the workforce.

What kinds of implicit biases may come into play in the workplace?

By their very nature, these biases operate below awareness, so while many people do not believe they are biased, implicit bias can be identified scientifically through implicit association tests. There are over 150 different cognitive implicit biases, but some are more relevant in the workplace. For example:

  • Affinity bias is the tendency to prefer individuals who appear similar to ourselves.
  • Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek information that confirms pre-existing beliefs and ignore information that does not conform to expectations.
  • Perception bias is the tendency to form stereotypes and assumptions about certain groups that prevent objectivity and do not distinguish individuals from their group membership. It is legally indefensible, and while none of the biases are easy to prove, this one is more likely to be discovered than the other two.

Overwhelmingly, research shows that white individuals and males are often given preference in hiring and promotion situations. Moreover, mothers are often penalized by missing out on opportunities that may take them away from their children. Appearance also makes a difference, with preference often given to tall or blonde individuals.

The Value of Implicit Bias Training Programs

Implicit bias training programs are promising, because they help participants understand the innocuous nature of their unconscious thoughts and the deleterious consequences. It’s vital to understand that while implicit biases are often linked to negative consequences, they are also malleable, which means it is worthwhile for companies to help their employees mitigate their own biases. Major companies like Facebook and Google have done just that and released their own training programs to the public.

Training is important because it enhances awareness and reduces stigma. It is important to help individuals understand that implicit biases are natural and not indicative of purposeful discriminatory intent. By understanding that biases are part of the human condition, it becomes easier to recognize and label them.

But awareness alone is not enough. Training programs should also make clear the harmful consequences of bias in different areas of one’s life and, most importantly, offer tools to help participants actively change their biases. Research has shown that bias reduction over time is possible. By empowering participants to make changes, implicit biases are less likely to go unchecked.

How to Implement Training

Successful implicit bias trainings tend to have some characteristics in common. First, they devote adequate time to the topic. Implicit biases are reinforced over a lifetime, and one 30-minute training is unlikely to be effective in making a change. In the same vein, make sure participants understand that the goal of a training program is not to become perfectly unbiased, which is impossible, but rather to become more aware of biases and learn strategies to reduce them.

These training are often best conducted in person and in a setting that allows for discussion. Having a safe space for participants to freely evaluate their own biases enables them to discuss and consider situations from different perspectives. Many implicit bias training programs include experiential components and activities that help drive the message home. Provide plenty of examples of the real-life consequences of bias, and give participants opportunities to recognize where in their own lives they may be acting with bias. Interactive activities are also excellent ways to practice bias-reducing strategies.

Training programs are beneficial for all employees, but there are extra advantages for those in leadership positions, as their biases are more likely to impact hiring, promotions and performance evaluations. Program success is often boosted when the training outcomes are linked to organizationally-relevant outcomes as well. For example, increased diversity has been shown to given companies an edge. Given the small cost to creating and implementing an implicit bias training program, organizations have little reason not to.