Question: Overcoming hidden bias at workplace

As HR director of a large non-profit, I have facilitated a few diversity trainings for employees and volunteers in our organization.

Unfortunately, my sense is that some senior managers act in a way which is quite contrary to our stated goals in this area. This reinforces generational and gender related stereotypes in their staff. I really think some of the senior employees are not even aware of how much damage little comments or actions can do.

What is the best way for us to ensure employees (including leaders) become more conscious of their biases and actively promote a more inclusive/ cohesive workplace? Are you aware of specific tools, etc I can use to show our current state and track progress in this regard?

11 Expert Insights

Unconscious or hidden biases are the most dangerous enemies, in which the enemy hides behind beautiful foliage, and is difficult to see because it lies concealed in the foliage of what we think of as good intentions, kind words, and so-called thoughtful acts. Having a bias is not the end of the world; the only shame involved is if we make no effort to improve. The second step is to expose ourselves to the very people who make us uncomfortable. This exposure, along with the knowledge we gain from it, will gradually diffuse the fear and eventually weaken even our most deeply hidden biases.

One simple assessment that you can administer is the Implicit Association Test (IAT). This test can get under your skin in some ways. But, IAT is not meant to shame people. There is something annoying about us coming around and telling these good people that something may be less good here. I am sure, there are other tools that can be effective too. Good luck.

Have these senior managers, tackle the problem of how to reveal and then relieve/ reduce hidden biases....let the people who are part of the problem become the authors of the solution.

Surya ably speaks to the 'concealed' truth of many (most?) biases. A 360°/multi-rater-type assessment – one that allows those being degraded to anonymously provide their feedback – can be particularly helpful in articulating the negative business impact of this particular bias, as well as other instances where the leader is blind to, and/or failing to take full responsibility for, his/her impact on others. A facilitated debriefing on the assessment results would likely help 'bring home' the costs of such inappropriate behaviors in terms most relevant to each leader in question..

My response is similar. A 360 multi-rater assessment helps us see how others see our behaviors. This allows you to expose people to the impact their behavior has on others. The other question is how do they become more aware - that is more complex because internal (and often unconscious) bias is hard to identify.

I often facilitate workshops where people rate themselves on specific behaviors then they pair with others to discuss scores. This paired process allows them to hear feedback and discuss (assuming others are open and honest). After the pair discussion I facilitate a larger group discussion. Often with this discussion format, people begin to see themselves more accurately and have a clearer understanding of the impact of their behavior.

I wish you great success in working through these challenges.


Diversity Training is very difficult to tackle today because there are so many different facets to it. What are you trying to accomplish with the training specifically?

Do your senior leaders believe in motivating employees & volunteers through example or through directing or micro managing? If it is the latter, the job will be much more difficult because the culture will not change if there is not a key leader driving the change and providing an example for others to follow.

I would focus on selecting & building up specific change agents and providing them with good models to follow. This makes it easier to monitor and adjust where necessary. These change agents will need to create trust relationships with both employees and volunteers so they can be respected and deliver the messages with ease.

Is the commitment to diversity part of the existing vision and mission of your non-profit? If not it needs to be worked into the very fiber of those statements. Then you can begin to train on vision & mission, which is easier than diversity alone.

Do you currently do any quizzes at the end of the training sessions? This helps convey the seriousness of the topic, especially if you make sure they understand that it is part of their employee file or volunteer file.  I would also have one-on-one discussions with individuals on an annual basis to help build up the knowledge and acceptance.

Achieving a diverse workforce is a reflection of a rapidly changing world and marketplace. It is not a fast process so you must be prepared for the long term. Unfortunately, I have not found any simple, affordable measurement tools yet nor are there any singular answers that work in every situation. Each organization & situation is unique.

Hope this helps.

My comments on this situation are more direct actions so don't specifically speak to any tools that might be available.

If your senior managers are really unaware of "how much damage" their behaviors and words might do, then I encourage you to have one-on-one meetings with them to let them know, using specific behaviors and words their employees have provided. Depending upon the culture, you might be quite specific with your comments such that it is obvious as to which employees provided the feedback, or you might "bundle" the comments in such a way that the behaviors are specific yet the source(s) are not. I suggest individual meetings in the event that these senior people are truly unaware of their individual conversation might go a long way especially if the individuals are open to coaching in how to change behaviors.  

Depending upon your organization, a conversation with the whole senior leadership team could be in order if the organization's leadership does indeed value diversity and wants to "walk that talk." Even if they do not or they are lukewarm about action, there are potential legal consequences and a reminder of possible consequences might be a starting point. Gender stereotypes, for example, when acted upon or verbally reinforced could be perceived as harassment and leaders and managers have obligations to ensure work environments free from harassment. These kinds of discussions might lead to actions that the senior team members commit to and--if they specify another round of organization training--may hear more clearly during future coaching/training on the topic.

Good luck with your situation; as others have noted, feedback is a key.

I'm with Janine that your concerns need to be brought to the surface. Unfortunately, in too many organizations, opinions expressed by HR, especially on "soft" issues are often disregarded by executives. So your confronting the issue might only yield token acknowledgement and promises to "do better."  Your case to sr. management would be more compelling if you could point to measurable harm, e.g., resignation of top employees.

If there are no compelling performance data, create a metric in the form of an internal survey. Instead of 360s, which generally cover a wide range of management and leadership behaviors, I think your money might be better spent on a culture survey (aka, employee attitude survey)  that includes some specific questions about diversity. EX: "Our leaders actively show commitment to and support for a diverse workforce."  If the survey results reveal some morale issues tied at least in part to diversity, you will have a more compelling case to make for leadership to clean up its act.

Good luck in fighting this good fight.

When senior members of your staff are prone to making inappropriate comments, it only encouraged other to follow them.  If left long enough, it suggests that management is condoning the behavior.  Fixing this problem is not easy and trying to monitor progress can be elusive.  The best way to handle it is with a small run table discussion.

Divide your roster into groups of 6.  Schedule meetings and invite each group to a 1 hour discussion.  Make sure that each group has at least senior manager in it.  Make the focus on the discussion how to implement and encourage high caliber behavior in the organization.  Make each member of your team a part of the solution.

I think you'll find that once the issues that everyone sees are out in the open and everyone works to resolve them, the senior managers' behavior will start to improve.

As for approach,  find the right person, may be you, to have 1on1 conversations with those who you feel are not respecting diversity.  Diversity is more than respecting another's race, or ethnicity or gender. it has to do with honoring diversity of thinking and ways of working. I say this so that you might broaden what actions you take re: "diversity".

in your role, seek to move from "having a sense" to "getting the facts".  

As for tools, here are some I'd recommend:
1. a employee survey to get the voices of the employees heard. then share data with everyone to begin the conversation of closing the gap that you say is there.
2. do a cultural survey to reveal the hidden biases. share with everyone to kickstart the conversation.

Don't hold back on tackling the issues. Get support from ED, If the ED is the culprit, start there. I suspect that the ED is turning a blind eye to the problem if you "sense" that management is the source of problem.

Everyone of us has any number of biases for the simple reason that we are more comfortable interacting with some people than with others.  People consciously and unconsciously differentiate between people, and this is an automatic response by our brains to efficiently differentiate between people or situations without having to analyze them slowly and fully.  

Unfortunately, the focus on the differences between people in terms of how they make us feel, creates two groups of people, one positive class of people and other group that makes us less comfortable. Since many of these differentiations  are automatic, we are frequently unaware of the old tapes in our minds that put people into one category or the other.

The usual effort to neutralize biases is to make people aware of their bias and the behavior of inclusion or exclusion that results from the bias.   We try to use knowledge as the primary technique to create awareness in hopes that awareness changes behavior.  

If a bias is simply an unexamined preference without any heavy emotion attached to it, it is possible that some people will have an "aha" reaction as they become newly self aware in the face of factual information.  But if the bias is overlaid with powerful memories or desires or unpleasantness, factual knowledge is unlikely to change anything.

In my personal experience, I have always found that where there's no prejudice, that growing familiarity with other people over the course of a few weeks or months eliminates the bias and people perceive others as particular individuals and not as members of a stereotyped group.  My advice for those who find themselves uncomfortable which does not lesson over the course of several months is, if it is at all possible move away from those uncomfortable interactions.  In other words,  get another job or a new group of friends or colleagues.

I reached out to a colleague of mine-Bill Cooper-who is a SME in Diversity & Inclusion-Here is his response:  In my opinion, Michael has identified the key players required to chart a path for success. The challenge  is to gain leader’s buy in. My suggestions are rooted in my belief that to be successful, we must put conversations about social justice to rest & find links to an organization’s success that can impacted by a culture that embraces difference.

One approach may be to create a business case for an inclusive culture & present this to the organization’s leadership using terms that resonate with your mission, vision, and goals.  A failure to embrace the power inherent in difference will deny the organization the ability to be as creative and innovative as it must in order to remain competitive.
To influence leaders in this way does take time. Meanwhile there are some things that you might try with your employees.The challenge is to introduce "safe" conversations about difference so that no feels that a finger is pointed at them. I also suggest  developing a healthy dialogue by sharing the various dimensions of difference (biological, physical, organizational) in order to demonstrate that there are many attributes that make us different from another-some are visible but even more that are not. Next, develop exercises using the 7 Dimensions of Culture to show how many times in the workplace, people have similar values but exhibit very different interpretation of these values. Finally, use exercises that build on acknowledgement of differing interpretations. One popular exercise is the D.I.N model (Describe Interpret Navigate). The D.I.N. model has been described practical tool for managing cultural differences and provides a practical tool for managing difference in the workplace. Develop some case studies and then have employees report out using the model -- it can be very revealing and it is easy to use when conflicts occur.

Best of luck...