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Overcoming Unconscious Bias Is Key to Building an Inclusive Team HR pros recognize an unconscious bias as a driving factor underlying homogenous workforces.

By Christi Downes Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


The concept that diversity in the workforce is good for business is nothing new, but it is becoming increasingly supported by very compelling data. Just last year McKinsey and Company released research showing that companies that are gender-diverse are 15 percent more likely to outperform financial expectations. Meanwhile, ethnically diverse companies can enjoy a 35 percent likelihood to outperform expectations.

Perception is not reality however. An MIT economist published a study that found an interesting dissonance between actual and perceived diversity when it comes to two important metrics: employee satisfaction and financial performance. Offices that presented the perception of a diverse work environment yielded an increase in satisfaction among employees, however, perceived diversity did not lead to improved revenues. Conversely, the actual presence of diversity reduced satisfaction, but drove financial results higher. Why is this the case? The answer may be in our subconscious; our most primal instincts that steer us to avoid risk and stay in our comfort zone.

Related: Why Diversity In the Workforce Is Imperative

More researchers and HR pros are giving credence to the concept of unconscious biases playing a significant role in workplace diversity. Unconscious bias (also referred to as implicit bias) affects how we feel about everything from gender, race, age, weight and religion -- all of which are driving factors underlying homogenous workforces -- even in companies that claim to foster diversity. While unconscious bias is not an entirely new notion, it is just starting to gain momentum in corporate efforts to advance workplace diversity. Many organizations are even developing specific departments or programs to combat the impact of unconscious biases -- often referred to as diversity and inclusion. This is a telling shift as it indicates the business world is finally admitting to an issue that has silently segmented workplaces for ages.

The unconscious bias.

Our brains are bombarded with about 11 million bits of information every second, yet we are only equipped to consciously process about 40 bits. So where does all of the unconsciously processed information go? This information becomes deeply engrained in the thoughts, feelings and beliefs we carry with us. These subconsciously absorbed slices of information are stored, and convert into deep-seated biases that inform every snap judgment we make, whether good or bad, and whether we like it or not. Unconscious biases manifest as survival mechanisms, helping us to better sift through the constant barrage of information, to make decisions based on instinct rather than logic. One common manifestation of this information is micro-aggression; subtle slices of aggressive behavior (body language, phrasing, etc.) which are subconsciously displayed and absorbed by the people around us. Individuals may not intend to release any sort of aggressive negativity -- but it happens and it impacts everyone in the vicinity.

Related: 4 Ways Diverse Teams Can Boost an Employer's Brand

A clear example of unconscious bias in the workplace is discussed in a Yale University study, which found that researchers will inherently rate men higher than women in terms of competence and hireability -- even in instances where they have identical qualifications. Adding an additional wrinkle to this: Both men and women will rate men higher, showing that gender doesn't determine or influence unconscious bias. This further illuminates the fact that previous efforts to stem off gender bias have not worked.

Instead of focusing on awareness alone, it's important to shift efforts toward exposing prevalent bias within the workplace, and developing mitigation strategies to address them. We must recognize that we can't manage for bias in the moment we're making a decision, and instead design talent management practices and processes that negate the impact of potential biases. In a program I helped design and institute at HARMAN, we incorporate feedback from many stakeholders across the company, such as HARMAN Women's Network Site Leaders (an employee business resource group), and our summer interns (mostly Millennials). Doing so has allowed us to gain specific insights on the perception of unconscious biases and gather more ideas to build a functional program for a more inclusive workplace.

A more inclusive workplace.

So how are early adopters of unconscious bias mitigation programs getting started? The first step is getting buy-in from the organization's senior leaders. While this seems simple on paper, it requires leaders to have a high degree of self-awareness, allowing them to acknowledge the implicit bias they may be inadvertently allowing to take place, or even perpetuating -- which is not always easy.

Related: The Myriad Benefits of Diversity in the Workplace

To raise awareness, HR professionals must develop the means to educate their executives, managers and the broader workforce. Our program at HARMAN teaches managers about the existence of unconscious biases and equips them with strategies for spotting troublesome situations, and tools to handle them accordingly. When managers lead by example, they create a standard to which all employees will instinctively adhere.

On the heels of International Women's Day last March, HARMAN's Global Talent Management & Diversity (GTM) team developed a pilot workshop for its employees located at the company headquarters in Stamford, Conn. Throughout 2016 the GTM team will conduct a global road show to empower leaders in all regions with critical knowledge and skills needed to manage and serve more diverse teams and ensure that these concepts go beyond our internal goals, and allow us to build better relationships with clients and customers.

Designing the infrastructure for these programs was, and continues to be an arduous task. To simplify this we also adopt strategies that have worked for other companies, or emulate programs that are endorsed by researchers or consultants well versed in the subject. It takes science to truly shift the way people think and behave. It's essential to create a measurement system to track successes and provide a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn't to further refine the process over time.


Is another training course the only answer to eliminating unconscious biases in the workplace? The short answer is, "no." However, giving employees the tools to recognize and understand how our brains make swift and possibly unfair judgments is integral to ensuring that the workplaces of the future are attracting, developing and leveraging the diverse candidates they want and need to succeed. To initiate positive change will strengthen the leadership skills of all employees, yield unprecedented benefits to their personal development, and, ultimately, improve a company's bottom line.

Christi Downes

Vice President, Global Talent Management & Diversity, HARMAN

Christi Downes serves as vice president for Global Talent Management & Diversity, HARMAN, where she is responsible for designing and implementing world-class talent strategies across the entire life cycle of talent management, with a focus on recruiting, performance management, succession planning, learning & development, and diversity & inclusion. Downes has 20 years of experience in human resources management. Prior to joining HARMAN, she held various HR Business Partner and Talent roles at Endo International, Lincoln Financial Group, Campbell Soup, BISYS Group and DLJ -- now Credit Suisse. 

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