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  • Writer's pictureBobbi K Dominick

What Do We Do About Bias?

Let's face it. Our workgroups are filled with very diverse people. We are diverse in many ways, including gender, race, national origin. We are diverse in our interests and aptitudes. What legal and HR professionals have been trying to do in the last few decades is to help people understand respectful treatment of others, regardless of our differences.

One of the ways we try to do that is by training our workforces on appropriate behavior. I offer respectful workplace training and I enjoy the conversations and understanding that such training offers. But does this kind of training really work? We have to keep asking ourselves that. We should not stop offering this training, but we should continue to explore ways that the message of respectful treatment in the workplace can be encouraged and lived out in our organizations.

One of the interesting developments in the last decade or so has been the introduction of implicit bias training into our organizational curriculum. It is "in vogue" now. I have included some aspects of this training in my respectful workplace training. But we really don't know yet, based on scientific research, how effective these efforts will be. This new article argues that the training is ineffective: In some respects I agree with the article's premise: Implicit bias training, by itself, is not a panacea for potential discrimination in the workplace. All this training can do is potentially make individual employees aware of the fact that they may be treating others differently based on stereotypes or hidden biases. But by itself, this training may not necessarily change behavior. It must be coupled with work rules and norms for behavior, and "respect in the workplace" principles.

An example from a recent training might illustrate the point of the article and the point I am making here. In training I include implicit bias discussion and exercises. Everyone in the small group agreed that we should not use our biases about women or men in the workplace to make business decisions. But then the discussion shifted when a male employee stated: "I agree with this premise, but there are some biases that I cannot change. For example, I would never allow a male to become a nanny or babysitter for my children." We discussed that for a time, and it was apparent that many in the room agreed that men are ill suited for the role of caretaker for children. No matter how much bias was exposed as the basis for that belief, it would not change the opinions of those who held that belief.

The best that we can do is help employees understand that they do have biases, and those biases may be unfounded, but their behavior in the workplace cannot be based upon biases that make unfounded assumptions about the qualifications and characteristics of people in the workplace. These are the points at which organizations like Starbucks have had public relations difficulties, where employees hold biases about the motivations for behavior, but then they ACT on those biases in detrimental ways. So we have to make sure employees know that even if they hold a sincere belief that men are not suited for caregiver roles, or women are not suited for law enforcement roles, in the workplace those biases, whether conscious or unconscious, cannot be allowed to control the decisions they make or the behavior they engage in. Bias training must be coupled with rules for nondiscrimination and respectful treatment in the workplace.

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