Unconscious Bias

Research demonstrates that we all harbor unconscious biases. The good news is that enhanced awareness and training can create an inclusive culture that identifies and helps eliminate these hidden biases.

Prejudice and discrimination are detrimental to the success of any organization. Yet research from the Kirwan Institute and others demonstrates that we all harbor prejudices; at a minimum, everyone is subject to their own unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is the result of messages (from a wide array of sources) introduced into our subconscious from an early age. Many of these prejudices that are deeply held in our unconscious can unconsciously influence how we act toward one another in our organizations.

Since many of these prejudices exist beyond the conscious level and are a result of being brought up in a culture that harbors biases, we first must acknowledge that they, in fact, exist. You do not have to be racist or sexist to implicitly support racism or sexism. These unconscious biases are not restricted to any one group, and they differ significantly from open and legislated forms of prejudice and discrimination such as usage of a derogatory name.

Multiple studies have shown that resumes with names that are related to under-represented groups are less likely to be invited for an interview as identical resumes with “dominant” group names. So, for example, in the U.S., a resume submitted with the name, “Leroy,” is less likely to result in a job interview than a resume submitted by “Jonathan.” In the UK, “Ali” is less welcome than “Edward.” Resumes submitted by “Jennifer” also received fewer requests than “John.” In meetings, opinions expressed by women are taken less seriously than the same opinions expressed by men of the same status. Doctors are less likely to order medical tests for people of color, etc. One of the paradoxes of such unconscious biases is that those who are discriminated against also are likely to discriminate against their own kind, since they have been brought up with the same prejudices as everyone else in the society.

The implications of unconscious bias are that the best and brightest talent often is made to feel unwelcome, invisible, and not important to the success of the organization. This results in employees who are detached and likely to take their talents elsewhere.

The good news is that, while no one is immune to their own unconscious bias, through enhanced awareness and training, these prejudices can be changed. Organizations are slowly recognizing that they must provide training on unconscious bias to create a more inclusive culture. However, it’s not uncommon for companies to inadvertently go down the wrong path. There are some positive training considerations that can improve the likelihood of a training initiative’s success.


  • Set realistic expectations. Do not over promise and under deliver. Raising expectations that unconscious bias training will eliminate all bias would be disingenuous. The goal is to be conscious of our biases and not to pretend to be blind to differences that exist.
  • Provide appropriate time for the training. It has taken a lifetime to develop our biases; they cannot be overcome in a two-hour session. Ideally, several short sessions or one full day is a minimum.
  • Provide the training in person. This topic requires interaction, trust, and the opportunity for people to meet in a safe environment. E-learning or Webinars are not appropriate delivery methods for unconscious bias training, nor will they produce measurable change.
  • Be judicious in selecting the right facilitator. Do not select trainers only because they took a course on diversity, see this topic as “their passion,” or are from an underrepresented group. Trainers should be highly qualified and well versed in the social psychology of attitude formation, be excellent and empathetic facilitators, and have a non-threatening and inclusive style that avoids guilt trips.
  • Incorporate unconscious bias assessment tools such as those provided by Project Implicit. This tool, which helps to uncover hidden biases on many criteria—including, race, gender, disabilities, and age—has been used more than a million times to uncover hidden biases. Trainers also must know the pitfalls of this test and the way people interpret the outputs from the Project Implicit Website. Trainers must ensure that the trainees are not misinterpreting results and have support as required.
  • Focus the training on specific, real situations, such as reviewing resumes, conducting interviews, responding to customers etc. An example of an outcome: Asking how to correctly pronounce someone’s name is a micro-affirmation, while not using someone’s name because you are afraid of embarrassing yourself is a micro-inequity.
  • Address the topic of in-group favoritism and how it operates in the organization. Research shows that a lack of diversity creates “group think,” while diverse viewpoints result in more creativity and innovation.
  • Identify those situations in which our implicit biases run contrary to our organizations’ explicit values.
  • Use proven successful simulations, role-plays, and other interactive exercises that help people take the perspective of others. Many standard tools used in diversity training are inappropriate.
  • Have groups discuss the words, phrases, symbols, jokes, and other symbolic representations of their group that they find offensive and why.
  • Provide de-biasing, counter-stereotyping activities such as making associations that go counter to existing stereotypes (male nurses, female scientists, elderly athletes).

Simply learning about our hidden biases is not sufficient. Successful training also must help participants to identify and build skills to overcome these biases. That said, it is unrealistic to expect that our unconscious biases will melt away after a single training program. Follow-up training and/or coaching will help to reinforce the original training. Metrics that demonstrate changes in behavior, such as the percentages of underrepresented candidates selected for development programs, should be a part of any follow-up to demonstrate the commitment to take action.

If you have any best practices around unconscious bias training or any questions on this topic, send them to me at: ngoodman@global-dynamics.com.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at ngoodman@global-dynamics.com. For more information, visit http://www.global-dynamics.com.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D.
Dr. Neal Goodman is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer, and coach on DE&I (diversity, equity, and inclusion), global leadership, global mindset, and cultural intelligence. Organizations based on four continents seek his guidance to build and sustain their global and multicultural success. He is CEO of the Neal Goodman Group and can be reached at: Neal@NealGoodmanGroup.com. Dr. Goodman is the founder and former CEO of Global Dynamics Inc.