Unconscious Bias in the Workplace



As a company dedicated both to industry excellence and the well-being of our employees, BDO is deeply committed to fostering workplace inclusion.In an effort to further our efforts, we work with top professionals in the field – including Dr. Alan Richter.

The President of QED Consulting, Dr. Richter provides strategic consulting in the areas of leadership, values, culture, and change. For the past few years, Dr. Richter has worked closely with BDO to create a program on unconscious bias. We recently sat down with him to discuss the concept of unconscious bias and its impact on the workplace, as well as the specific steps BDO is taking to educate people on this issue.

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Q: How would you explain ‘unconscious bias’ to someone who is unfamiliar with the term?


Alan: We all have preferences. Just think about something like food – we prefer this cuisine over that cuisine, and that’s perfectly natural. There is no such thing as a pure balance.

Our preferences are shaped by our history, our genetics, by how we grow up, what we’re taught, etc. This applies to all kinds of preferences, including people.

The problem is that when it happens, we can exclude people because of these biases, which are most often unconscious rather than conscious. As people, we’re not as rational as we think we are. Psychology has taught us over the last 50 years that so much of our mental activity is unconscious… we’re just not aware of it. For most of us, our thinking is not rational, our thinking is based on these unconscious biases that are shaped by our history.

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Q: How do you think that that manifests itself in the workplace?


Alan: Well, it manifests itself when groups of people have shared biases and those biases play out in terms of who we hire, who we promote, the whole life cycle of coming into an organization, and the opportunities for development and advancement. Let’s look at something as simple as height; research in the U.S. shows that only 15 percent of adult men are over six feet tall, but when you look at CEOs, 60 percent are over six feet tall. Now that’s got to be based on a height bias. People who are taller are not necessarily smarter or better – they’re just taller! That applies to all of the dimensions of diversity. There could be a preference for men over women, straight over gay… and these are very general. Not every situation will have a tall person over a short, but when you look at data and analytics, and when you look at the large numbers those biases are revealed around the world.

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Q: How did you become involved with BDO specifically?


Alan: BDO was looking for an outside specialist to help them further their work around diversity, inclusion, and unconscious bias. I was brought in to help with their diversity-related work.

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Q: Is the concept of unconscious bias new?


Alan: It’s relatively new. I would say 20 years or so. The seminal research was the Implicit Association Test that was developed by Harvard in the late 1990s. There were a number of researchers that were able to use technology to come up with wonderful tests to measure the extent of bias that people had unconsciously. There are 15 or so versions of this test on height, weight, gender, age, color, etc. They all use the same logic; you’re given words to sort out; for example, “male and female.” You’re then told that men are good and women are bad, and so you sort all the male words in the “good” box and the female related words in the “bad” box. You’re timed for doing this, and then the framework flips and you’re asked to put all the female words in the “good” box and the male words in the “bad” box. If you have no bias in your brain, it should take more or less the same amount of time, maybe slightly different given that you practiced the first one and now you’re on the second. What they found is that in the 1990s, 91 percent of people were quicker at sorting men as good than women as good. That can’t be just random… that’s a pretty profound finding.

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Q: So is that the solution here? People just need to be aware so they can actively fight against that?


Alan: I use a model called “The head, the heart, and the hands.” The head is about insight; the first step is to become insightful that you do have unconscious biases. Raising the awareness is step one, but then need to have the heart – the commitment, sympathy, and empathy to make changes to your biases. Then you have do the “hands work,” which is about actions. You’ve got to disrupt the bias, practice the habit of behaving in a way that reflects un-biasedness. Of course, it’s a big challenge to defeat all biases, but we can tackle the more urgent ones. We’re biased in all sorts of ways, but the question of “which ones are most important in the workplace?” is the issue that all organizations and businesses face. The big ones are those primary dimensions of who we are; age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Those are about identity and they’re shaped over our entire upbringing, so they are the most urgent to deal with.

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Q: What are some of the specific things that you’ve done with BDO in training or other work?


Alan: With BDO we initially designed a workshop on “defeating bias.” We created different versions; one was on understanding bias and the other focused on how to deal with different cases. We also made sure to tailor each one for the specific groups participating in the workshops, from new hires to new managers.

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Q: In your experience, do people understand and accept unconscious bias, or are they skeptical of this concept?


Alan: By doing interactive exercises, we get people to understand how the mind works. Simple activities can help people see how the brain codes, de-codes, sorts, and blocks things out. The first challenge of any workshop is the head work – getting people to recognize how biases are mostly unconscious and play with our perceptions of the world. Once you’ve got them on board with that, it’s much more difficult to get them to apply this to the workplace. We use case studies to show how biases creep into decision making, for recruiting, hiring, and promoting. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback from the workshops.

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Q: During the workshops, is there ever a seminal moment when people sort of have an “Ah ha” moment?


Alan: Yes, that does happen in the exercises. People say, “I didn’t think about that or see it that way.” We have a number of exercises that do this; we show them maps of the world and say which map of the world do you connect with? Well guess what, there are other ways of looking at the world, and to recognize that my way isn’t more important than others. In some of the workshops we had them share what they know about their names and how much baggage comes with their name. Does it carry associations, perceptions, etc.? Research shows a white sounding name versus an African American sounding name or Arab sounding name has significant differences in your opportunities in, say, sending someone a resume. They are not treated equally because society is biased both unconsciously and consciously. People get it.

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Q: Are the modules different depending on participants’ level in the firm?


Alan: Yes. Although there’s a fair amount of overlap with what is bias and what is unconscious bias, the level of the participants makes a difference. If you’re in a managerial position then it becomes more critical that this topic is dealt with. Seeing bias as an individual contributor vs. managing possible biases in the workplace if you’re a manager… there are hierarchy issues here that add to the urgency of the topic the higher up you go. Our goal, overall, is for everyone in the firm to participate in the workshop, hopefully at multiple points throughout their career.

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