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Recognizing and Eliminating Unconscious Bias in Your Organization

Try as we might, the human brain is not impervious to holding unconscious assumptions, beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes about certain groups, also known as unconscious biases. This can have unwanted consequences for your organization, but if you challenge these unconscious biases, there are many benefits. Here’s our guide on how to address them.

/ 9 mins / SparxTeam

You’ve read anti-racism books, you’ve watched LGBTQIA+ documentaries, you consider yourself well-versed in diversity and inclusion, you stay up to date on human rights issues, so you’re impervious to being unintentionally prejudiced, discriminatory, and exclusionary, right?

Well, not exactly. Everyone has unconscious biases: “unconscious assumptions, beliefs, attitudes and stereotypes that human brains have about different groups,” as defined by the University of Victoria. 

Here are some examples of unconscious bias.

  • Affinity Bias – gravitating towards people who share similar interests, experiences, and backgrounds to us 
  • Confirmation Bias drawing conclusions based on your personal desires, beliefs, and prejudices rather than unbiased merit 
  • Attribution Bias judging a person’s behaviour based on prior observations and/or interactions you’ve had with them
  • Conformity Bias acting similar to the people around you, regardless of your beliefs or desires  
  • The Halo/Horns Effect placing someone on a pedestal after learning something impressive about someone (halo), or, alternatively, viewing someone negatively after learning something unpleasant about them (horns)
  • Contrast Effect comparing two or more things that have occurred simultaneously or one after another, causing you to exaggerate the performance of one in contrast to the other
  • Gender/Racial Bias – judging or preferring one gender identity and/or racial identity over others  
  • Ageism – having negative feelings about a person because of their age
  • Name Bias – judging and/or preferring people with certain types of names, typically names that are of Anglo origin 
  • Beauty Bias – believing attractive people are more successful, competent, and qualified
  • Height/Weight Bias – judging people who are taller or shorter than average height, or smaller or heavier than average weight.
  • Anchor Bias – making decisions based on an initial impression that you’re unable to “unsee” 
  • Nonverbal Bias – ​​analyzing nonverbal communication attributes, such as body language, and letting it affect a decision or opinion
  • Authority Bias – weighing and/or giving more attention to ideas provided by authority figures because it’s thought to be more accurate
  • Overconfidence Bias – being more confident in your capabilities than is reasonable

Unfortunately, unconscious biases can have unwanted consequences for your organization, including negative PR or marketing campaigns, exclusionary products/services, and unfair hiring practices. Here’s why you should consider addressing unconscious bias in your organization and how to do it. 

Why You Should Address Unconscious Biases

  • Allows you to be more diverse in your marketing efforts. Unconscious biases could be preventing your organization from showcasing a true representation of your audience in your marketing.

    Take a look at your current marketing collateral; what do you see? People of varied abilities, genders, races, sizes, and ages? What are each of the roles of these individuals? Do those roles conform to outdated or stereotypical societal expectations? It’s a good idea to check your copy for potentially offensive or outdated language as well.

    If this exercise brings forth some areas of concerns, rest assured that you’re not alone. Research has found that stock image websites do show gender bias in work-related images. 

    So, why showcase diversity in your marketing? Not only does it make members of your community feel seen and heard, there are many business benefits to doing so. We’ve outlined these benefits in our Why and How to Add More Diversity Into Your Marketing Efforts blog. 
  • Helps you best serve your customers. Unfortunately, biases can lead to exclusionary, offensive, or even inaccessible offerings for certain customers. If you and your employees haven’t had occasion to think about things like accessibility ramps in buildings, closed/open captioning on videos, or text readers for website browsing, there’s a good chance your organization may be inaccessible for customers who have certain disabilities.

    Alternatively, perhaps confirmation bias has led your organization to provide offerings that unintentionally exclude the end customer — or some of them, at least. This can be offensive at best and dangerous at worst.

    For example, the automotive industry uses crash test dummies the size of the average man, so women can actually be more injured in a car crash because of this unconscious bias.

    By taking unconscious biases head on, you can think of all of your current and potential customers and provide products they want and need. Not only will this curb any potential PR incidents, but you’ll improve your sales and customer satisfaction and retention.
  • Adds objectivity during the hiring process. Biases can also cloud judgement when looking for new candidates. For example, men get hired more often for scientist roles, Anglo-sounding names get more interview requests, and CEOs are disproportionately taller (and male). 

    In addition, the affinity bias may be guiding you to unconsciously hire people who are similar to you instead of diverse candidates. 

    Other biases to look out for are ageism, racial, weight, beauty, and/or nonverbal. You may also be comparing candidates who you saw back-to-back with the contrast effect, or letting the halo/horns effect affect your judgement if you learn something impressive (i.e. where the candidate went to school) or less-than-perfect (i.e. a gap in the resume) about the candidate.

    By addressing any unconscious biases during the hiring process, you can look at what’s important: the skills and fit of the candidate for the job. That way, you get the best person for the role, and in turn, help foster a diverse and inclusive workplace. 

How to Eliminate Unconscious Biases in Your Organization

  • Discover your unconscious biases. We all have unconscious biases, whether we realize it or not. Even the most well-educated, cultured, “woke” people have to challenge the biases that were hard-wired into them from birth. But it’s one thing to accept you have unconscious biases, and another to find them. 

    One way to discover the biases you may have is to take an Implicit Association Test (IAT).

    An IAT will ask you to classify certain images and words into specific categories as quickly as possible. For example, you may be asked to assign terms that are accepted as feminine and masculine to categories associated with science or humanities.

    Knowing what your biases are is the first step to improving. After all, you can’t fix something you don’t know is broken. 
  • Educate yourself and your staff on unconscious biases. So, you know you have unconscious biases and what they are — now what? In order to address these biases head-on, you need to educate yourself on how to tackle them. It’s a good idea to involve your staff (perhaps have them do an IAT as well).

    By involving your entire organization, they’ll be able to challenge biases in their specific roles, provide understanding of marginalized groups they may come from, and be better equipped to catch issues that may come up in the future. 

    Unconscious bias training is really a stepping stone into a much bigger conversation. Many organizations who have done one-off training and then called it a day generally do not see long-term change, which is why this practice has been seen as controversial.

    Instead, be prepared to pair unconscious bias training with a more systemic, integrated approach to diversity and inclusion, including hiring diverse staff and creating sustainable initiatives in all departments. 
  • Audit your business to find where biases could be occurring. Go through every department, looking for processes that may continue to run with unconscious biases in the background. Auditing your marketing content and customer-facing collateral is a great place to start.

    We’ve covered how unconscious bias can affect things such as your marketing efforts. However, unconscious biases could be lurking in other areas of your business, too. For example, do you offer gender-neutral washrooms for customers or staff in any physical locations you have?

    Like finding mistakes in your own writing, it’s not easy to find issues in your own organization. Sometimes, you need to have someone else take a look. Diversity and inclusion consultants, like Canadian Equality Consulting, offer an objective look at your organization. 
  • Ensure diversity among your employees. When an organization is filled with the same type of person, conformity bias can occur. This could result in “blind spots” which may impact various initiatives and campaigns. 

    However, when the staff is diverse, insights into other types of lived experiences are expressed, issues related to exclusion or inappropriateness get flagged, and products and services can be designed with more types of people in mind. 
  • Listen to your employees and customers. Did you know only 29% of employees are engaged at their workplace? It’s one thing to have diverse employees and customers, but it’s another thing to actually empower them to get involved, listen to their insights, and implement their ideas and suggestions. 

    Did a customer bring up a pain point? Come up with an action plan on how to address and change it. Does a staff member have a great idea for making a product or service more accessible or user-friendly? Consider implementing it.

    Alternatively, you can use social media polls (like on Instagram Stories), physical suggestion boxes, focus groups, or feedback forms/surveys on emails (like Google forms) to generate data on areas of your business that may be affected by unconscious biases.

***

By addressing the unconscious biases within your organization, you can add diversity to your marketing efforts, and better serve your customers and staff. Remember, challenging biases is a lifelong process, so lean on your people and keep striving to do better. 

Let Sparx Help You Challenge Unconscious Biases in Your Marketing

At Sparx, our mission is to create content to make the world better.

If you want your marketing to better reflect diversity and inclusion but aren’t sure where to start, the experts at Sparx Publishing Group are always available to chat. We help purpose driven organizations secure their website, create great content, build experiences to delight their customers, and help grow their business. You can reach us here.

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