How to Address Unintentional and Unconscious Bias at Work

Start with training and discussions at the top for a diverse work environment

people in blocks
Expose as many of your biases as possible so that you’re aware of them and have the tools to override them. Getty Images
Headshot of Sam Haskin

Diversity and inclusion, both as a part of your work environment and your marketing efforts, are no longer nice-to-haves. They’re not something you do to show how woke your company is. Instead, promoting a work environment where people feel comfortable presenting fresh and different viewpoints is not only good for employees, it’s good for business. It’s table stakes.

Achieving authentic diversity and inclusion requires training employees on how to foster an inclusive workplace. It includes incorporating diverse voices and points of view in all aspects of your business. And it increases your potential to produce work that better represents—and resonates with—the world around you.

You must be willing to look within to make sure that you’re doing everything you can to create a diverse and inclusive culture. The work needed to authentically achieve diversity and foster inclusion is not something performative, something that you set goals for and then check off a list. It’s about setting the foundation to operate with a D&I mindset in all areas of your growing business. Here’s how to get there:

A thorough cultural assessment will inform D&I training and hiring practices and, in turn, how you present yourself externally to the world.

Conduct a cultural assessment

The best way to effectively—and objectively—assess your current environment is via an expert third party who can help you identify areas that are lacking, understand and address biases and work with you to change as a company. For example:

Employees: How do they speak to each other? What intentional or unintentional biased or prejudiced interactions (microaggressions) are happening?

Meetings: What’s being said? How are people reacting to each other’s viewpoints?

Hiring: How are candidates being sourced? Are job descriptions using inclusive language? What’s asked, what’s said and what’s covered in job interviews? And who is conducting the interviews?

A thorough cultural assessment will inform D&I training and hiring practices and, in turn, how you present yourself externally to the world. Creating an environment that represents a lot of different things allows everyone to focus on doing their best work rather than having to process and navigate the effects of being excluded, diminished or in extreme cases, disrespected and discriminated against.

Foster an inclusive and diverse workplace

Training helps ingrain a D&I point of view into company culture so it becomes second nature and is authentically incorporated into daily work life. Some steps to consider:

Create a safe communications environment. For many people, talking openly about diversity and asking questions—particularly in the workplace—can be scary. No one wants to be seen as prejudiced, biased or insensitive. So, it’s critically important that everyone knows the process will not be perfect—missteps are part of the learning process.

Conduct trainings and group discussions. Training employees to be conscious of their biases is an important next step. Start with managers and leaders to ensure they are capable of leading diverse teams in a diverse environment with inclusion at the forefront.

Onboard new employees with purpose. Ensure new employees are made very clear of your company’s stance on D&I as it relates to how to conduct themselves as co-workers in the workplace, as representatives of the company and as members of the surrounding community.

Hire different voices

When your staff is trained with a D&I mindset, they will hire with a D&I mindset, leading to a company filled with diverse points of view and novel ideas. Some general guidelines:

Understand the communities that you exist in and serve. And then connect with them. One type of unconscious bias is affinity bias—the natural tendency to connect with someone who shares something significant with us, more so than with someone who does not. We all need to broaden recruitment efforts beyond our own circles to tap into pools of potential candidates.

Set benchmarks as guideposts—not goals. Who your customers are—age, ethnicities, gender, etc.—can provide insight into what areas of your company might be lacking in a diversity of viewpoints.

Start small. When hiring for specific teams or projects, determine what perspective could bring a different angle. This way, diverse viewpoints will begin to flow through the entire organization and into your work organically.

Focus on inclusive interviews. Highlight areas of your company that will help interviewees feel comfortable.

Express D&I through external marketing

Once you’ve laid the foundation, building diverse and inclusive marketing campaigns becomes more natural and intuitive. You start to see where client messaging can improve, and you naturally see campaigns through a D&I lens. But where to build?

Research: Before you get into creative, the most important place to infuse D&I thinking is in your research. If the research is flawed—let’s say you’ve inadvertently blended multiple audiences together or asked them questions that have an unintended cultural tilt—the results will color everything you do and may create a feeling of disconnection and alienation among your ideal audience.

Targeting: When looking at target audiences, it’s easy to take broad approaches that cover the most ground. For example, if 80% of the audience you’re trying to reach visits one channel, there’s a temptation to optimize toward that channel. But what if that 80% comprises a limited subset of your intended audience, even if it represents a numeric majority? If you’re not paying attention, you’ve just excluded a more diverse audience that lives within the 20%. Look at more than just the numbers.

Data analysis: Unconscious bias can also show up in data analysis. As long as people are interpreting data, the results are going to be biased—it’s unavoidable. And if computers are interpreting data, their results are going to reflect the bias of whoever wrote the software. The key is to expose as many of your biases as possible so that you’re aware of them and have tools to override them.

Creative: Your marketing needs to reflect your target audience’s diverse background or you’ll miss the mark. The key is to be aware and honest about the areas you need help in. For example, if your company is trying to reach a group that’s very important to your business but you don’t have firsthand experience with that group, bring in people who intimately understand the culture of that group so that whatever is said to them is said authentically.

Make the ultimate the norm

Fully integrating D&I into your organization from the inside out takes planning, time, budget and teamwork across many people at your company, from HR all the way down to individual contributors.

However, the ultimate goal is to make workplace diversity and inclusion the norm—so ingrained and widespread that it no longer stands out as unique or interesting but becomes something that we all do and live—authentically.

(Contributor note: This article was supported by Kamron Hack, director of people and culture, and Meghan Patrick-Crane, director of talent management at Firewood.)

@firewoodmkt Sam Haskin is svp, group account director at Firewood.