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Unconscious Bias During A Crisis

The current conditions of workplaces during a global pandemic which has social, economic, technology implications, dictate that diversity and inclusion remain at the forefront of crisis management. Due to the emergence of remote work and remove collaborations, organizations need to unpack and address unconscious bias in the age of telework. Unconscious biases impact on organizations has been the focus of multiple research studies before COVID-19. Now, it is more imperative that organizations and individuals address unconscious bias as the workplace shifts to virtual and hybrid (virtual/office) workplaces in the age of social distancing.

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias or implicit bias is our fundamental way of looking at, and encountering the world is driven by a "hard-wired" pattern of making unconscious decisions about others based on what feels safe, likable, valuable, and competent. Everyone has some biases, which can be either positive or negative and which we may be unaware of. Everyone has biases that are good or bad towards someone, something, or some group. Unconscious biases are simply the brain's way of coping with and categorizing all the information we receive daily. Often the decisions people make are hard-wired and done without much thought. Human history reveals how human beings had to determine what or who was coming towards them, quickly, which was a life or death decision. As a result, human minds evolved to make decisions very quickly without thinking about those decisions.

The majority of people believe that they have, few if any, unconscious biases. Instead, people believe that they make impartial and fair decisions that do not adversely impact specific individuals or groups. People think that their decisions are formed based on careful consideration of all of the facts and the full set of information. However, in most cases, the reliance on the circumstances and complete set of information are not valid.

How do we know that people frequently fail to rely on facts and the full set of information? Decisions about an individual or group are often made very quickly when it is virtually impossible or highly unlikely to have access to all the facts or the full set of information. People tend to use their frame of reference or way of seeing the world to make decisions. People have a natural tendency to form associations to organize their social world. Unconscious bias is a barrier to equality in society and manifests in the workplace as inequities that persist over time.

How Does Unconscious Bias Operate?

Unconscious bias in the work environment can, for example, determine whether or not an organization hires the most qualified candidate for a job, give an employee a fair performance review, or hire the right leader. Unconscious bias can and does impact all aspects of the employment relationship as well as customer relations. The following are examples of employment activities that unconscious biases impact:

· Recruitment

· Mentoring

· Assignments

· Training opportunities

· Including ideas and suggestions

· Interacting with colleagues

· Making promotional choices

· Providing professional development

· Giving performance reviews

· Deciding on organizational policy

· Conducting marketing campaigns

· Treating customers with respect

Unconscious bias can be heightened during a crisis such as COVID-19, as leaders and employees are modifying how they work together. In the workplace, there will be a "new normal," which will impact policies, work, customers, and the business. Moreover, expect the impact of this pandemic to impact employees differently based on factors such as virtual capabilities, family structure, job duties, disability, health status, etc. Unconscious biases can hinder companies' ability to be responsive to this crisis and employees’ needs.

Researchers believe the phenomenon of unconscious bias is due in part to people holding information based on teaching, expectations, and past experiences.[1]

Consider what information your brain or subconscious is providing when you walk into a meeting and see someone you do not know who has skin that is darker or lighter. Also consider encountering a person dressed differently from what you expected, or a person whose hair is covered, or a person whose age is different than what was expected. You can just fill in the blank and think about your initial reaction. That is how unconscious bias works.

Туреs оf Unсоnsсіоus Віаs

A vast body of research on unconscious bias shows that there are approximately 150 different types of unconscious biases. Not all 150 unconscious biases impact the workplace the same or at all. Given the various kinds of unconscious biases, all of us must be aware of our own unconscious biases. However, DEI officers, human resources professionals, hiring officials, search committees, rесruіtеrs, and other individuals involved in thе hіrіng рrосеss should undеrstаnd how unconscious bias affects the hiring process. Four fundamental unconscious biases influence the organizations during a crisis. Here are the four unconscious biases below that primarily impact organizations during a crisis.

Affinity Bias

Affinity bias is when people like people who are perceived to be just like them. Any perceived connection, however big or small can result in an affinity bias. During a crisis, the team member may choose to work with coworkers that share the same neighborhood, hometown, or work habits, rather than being inclusive or collaborating with other team members. Affinity bias is fertile ground for the exclusion of people because employees who do not feel any connection to individual employees fail to have a connection.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation biases are realized when people attempt to prove assumptions and stereotypes. Confirmation bias impacts the organizational culture since people seek to confirm their beliefs or stereotypes in their interactions. Confirmation bias can affect assignments to work teams, and opportunities to participate in decision-making processes during a crisis. People who exhibit confirmation bias do so after learning some aspect about an employee or group and will then unconsciously seek confirmation or search for evidence to prove their assumptions. Remote work can exasperate confirmation bias since there is less opportunity to get to know people due to limited contact, whereas people will spend time confirming instead of getting to know someone.


Groupthink is a type of unconscious bias where people want to achieve group consensus. People will adopt the thoughts and opinions of the group while setting aside their personal beliefs and values. Groupthink is present in many aspects of the workplace but is mostly found to occur during decision-making processes. The most damaging effect of groupthink is the pressure on group members to conform to the group and form a consensus that results in the exclusion of other ideas, perspectives, talents, skills, and thoughts. Remote collaboration requires a diversity of thought, experiences, and backgrounds.

Реrсерtіоn Віаs

Perception bias is when people form generalized stereotypes and assumptions about particular groups of people. This type of bias renders it virtually impossible for people with this bias to remain objective when considering and individual in any aspect of the workplace. For instance, when perception bias is present, the focus shifts from the qualifications and qualities of an individual to irrelevant factors related to their group membership such as gender, ethnicity, race, national origin, sexual orientation, etc. and stereotypes attached.

Addressing Unconscious Bias

Considering the impact of unconscious bias patterns on both the individual and organizational behavior, it is imperative to take steps immediately to address unconscious bias. In particular, organizations and leaders must take intentional, strategic measures to mitigate and address unconscious bias. During a crisis, companies' and organizations’ crisis management plans should include addressing unconscious bias. Here are a few suggested steps to address unconscious bias:

· Training and organization development is a critical first step. Extensive, broad, and widespread training should be offered so employees and leadership can develop a requisite knowledge of unconscious bias.

· Recognition of one’s own unconscious biases and take steps to mitigate those biases.

· Do not engage with unconscious bias curriculum with defensiveness. Learn to accept feelings of discomfort to unlearn and relearn different things.

· Dissect your biases: Consider the first messages you received as you grew up about different people, e.g., men, women, or various aspects of people such as gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, religions, etc. Decide which biases you will address first.

· For leaders: Review every aspect of the employment life cycle for bias, including working relationships, assignments, reviewing resumes, job interviews, onboarding, assignment process, mentoring programs, performance evaluation, identifying high performers, promotions, and terminations. The review should consider how unconscious biases have been exasperated during COVID-19 or any crisis.

· Support initiatives and programs that encourage positive images of persons of color, LGBT, and women and other underrepresented groups. Share stories and pictures widely that portray stereotype-busting images or elicits dialogue, including electronic posters, newsletters, annual reports, speaker series, and podcasts. Get creative. Many studies show that the positive images of specific groups of people can combat unconscious bias.

· Identify, support, and collaborate with effective programs or interdisciplinary groups that increase diversity and opportunities to eliminate unconscious bias.

· For leaders: Leaders by example. The behavior of leaders is the most significant influence on how followers and employees will behave in order to create more inclusive teams without the negative impact of unconscious bias.

Companies and organizations need to build employee and organizational capacity for knowledge and understanding of different groups so that people do not rely on biases or stereotypes due to a lack of information. As there is a new normal being established due to COVID-19, DEI including unconscious bias should be incorporated into crisis management. Most critically, addressing unconscious bias is a going process that requires intentional and meaningful actions.

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