Reducing Unconscious Bias Requires Collaboration

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Oct. 6 — Reducing unconscious bias must involve dialogue, not lecturing, buy-in from senior executives and stress on the business importance of the effort, consultants and lawyers say.

“You need to get support from the top,” Jonathan A. Segal, a partner in management-side Philadelphia-based law firm Duane Morris LLP, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 4. “If it’s seen as ‘sensitivity training,’ it isn’t going to go very far.”

“This is business training to be more effective and compliant,” said Segal, who served on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. “Part of the way you get support from the top is to emphasize the business case of how the business does better when there is diversity. Having gender and ethnic diversity makes a big difference” in management and on the board of directors. Differences in people’s experiences, perspectives and style should be taken into account, as well as EEO factors, he said.

Don’t Put People on Defensive

“It shouldn’t be attacking. If you attack people, they’re going to get defensive,” Segal said.

“It can’t just be a one-way street. It can’t just be someone talking at you,” Janine Yancey, president of San Francisco-based online workplace compliance training company Emtrain, said. “We learn better from a dialogue, and from peers jumping in. People are really sparked, and are motivated to have a dialogue, when they see their peers jumping in.”

Everyone has implicit bias, Joelle Emerson, founder and CEO of Palo Alto, Calif.-based diversity and inclusion consultancy Paradigm, said. When designing workshops on the subject, she said, “structure the content around schemas or contexts that are relevant for people in their work.” For example, talk about how confirmation bias can lead people to make snap judgments at the beginning of an interview, and discuss how you avoid that.

Emerson said it is necessary to give people strategies for what to do about unconscious bias, otherwise people will reject the information. “That’s really empowering for people, and really motivating for people to actually engage in the strategies we want them to engage in.”

Yancey said that while an organization’s chief diversity officer or chief people officer usually introduces a program on unconscious bias, “we see a big difference when it’s introduced by the business functional leader,” such as the CEO. Employees are more motivated when they see top leaders indicating that the subject is important to them, she said.

When inviting people to unconscious bias training, view it like a marketing communication, she suggested. “You need to make it accessible to everybody, not just the leaders.” She also suggested designing the program in the same way marketers and product designers are designing web-based programs. There should be an external trigger (the invitation to attend the program), an activity (the program itself), which should be “easy” and “enjoyable,” and the participants should be given “some kind of a reward for doing that activity,” according to Yancey. Rewards can include peer recognition, she said.

Efforts against unconscious bias should be “sustainable,” not a “one-time effort,” Yancey said. She also suggested thinking of them as something done once a quarter.

Beyond the Comfort Zone

“The short answer is, you have to bring it to conscious awareness so you can recognize where it is and avoid it,” Segal said. Unconscious bias creeps in when, for example, people give plum accounts, or business-social invitations, to people they are “comfortable with,” which often means people who look like them, he said.

While neurological research makes it understandable that people act this way, it’s not an excuse for discrimination, Segal said.

As for pushback from white males, he said that first of all, white males may have non-obvious disabilities, or be gay or of a minority religion. If white males say they feel left out during unconscious bias training, Segal said the trainer shouldn’t pounce on them but should instead empathize while asking them to imagine “what it feels like to be left out” in every other context but unconscious bias training.

“You do not need white men for diversity programs to have ‘credibility,’ but including white men as stakeholders makes it less likely there will be overt and covert resistance,” Segal said. “We all have the potential for unconscious bias, and we all lose from it.”

Emerson and Yancey were speaking during a Sept. 30 webinar sponsored by Emtrain.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at

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