Defeating Unconscious Bias

by Deborah A. Biddle, Talent Management Consultant

You can find it in every work environment, but most of us don’t see it.  It interferes with good management decision making, affecting everything from hiring, promotions, layoffs and teambuilding to advertising, marketing, product development and product placement.  It impacts our thought processes and can cloud our judgement. floor20multicolor201440x90020wallpaper_www-wall321-com_32“According to Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, we are faced ­­with approximately 11 million pieces of information at any given moment. However, our brains are only able process about 40 of those bits of information at one time.  So, the brain generates shortcuts and uses past knowledge to make assumptions.  Most often, we don’t even recognize it’s happening.”1 This unconscious bias results in our making decisions based on what we expect, especially when it comes to “people” decisions like hiring the best person for the job.

multicolor-wall“Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate or a venture deal and reach a fair and rational conclusion that’s in our, and our organization’s, best interests,” writes Harvard University researcher Mahzarin Banaji in Harvard Business Review. “But more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception.”1  The result is our multiple unconscious biases serve as boundaries restricting and confining decision-making capabilities, as we see in the situations described below.

#1 — Jim approached the next candidate for the open marketing research assistant at his company.  He was excited to interview Janelle, because she recently graduated from the same college Jim attended, had great experience from her previous company and was highly recommended by a mutual colleague.  While waiting for Jim to arrive, Janelle listened to some music on her mobile phone and answered a few emails.  When Jim greeted Janelle, he was taken aback by her business casual attire, her natural curly hair and the backpack she slung over her shoulder as they walked to his office.  After the interview, his enthusiasm disappeared and he was reluctant to offer Janelle the job.  Jim is a 54-year-old White male from suburban Detroit. Janelle is a 26-year-old bi-racial woman from Madison, WI.

#2 — Angela is a 37-year-old Latina single mother from Chicago who advanced to IT director at a Minneapolis area Fortune 100 company.  She is in the midst of presenting her recommendation to implement a new manufacturing system in the company manufacturing plant in North Carolina, a project she’s researched for six months.  The meeting includes her peer, Nathan, the second IT director, a senior IT specialist, the division vice president, vice president of finance and vice president of engineering.  All are White males in their mid-50s. Nathan is married with two children.  In the midst of her presentation, the division vice president, Paul, wholeheartedly supports Angela’s recommendation and gives the green light for the project.  He stresses the need for a strong leader on-site in North Carolina, and then assigns the project to her colleague, Nathan. After the meeting, when Angela asked Paul why he suggested Nathan, Paul replied, “Well, I know you have to be available for your daughter.”

#3 — Becky, a 60-year old white female, came home from work distraught.  She explained to her husband that she had been put on a performance improvement plan by her new boss.  She was upset and confused, since she had received exemplary annual performance reviews each of  her 23 years at the mortgage brokerage firm at which she worked as an account manager, until they hired Marcus.  He is a 28-year-old supervisor and the new Client Relationship Manager.  Marcus told Becky that she wasn’t effective at managing her clients as he’d like her to be and that she needed to be more efficient in communicating with clients, perhaps using more email and reducing face-to-face and phone contact. He thought Becky needed to give this area of her job extra attention.  He suggested she attend supplemental webinar training, despite the fact that Becky had been commended by internal and external customers for the extra care and personal touch she brings to her job and had trained all of the new and younger account managers at the firm.

multicolor201920x108020wallpaper_www-wall321-com_52In each of the three situations, bias is the main culprit behind the decision making.  Whether biases are based on age, race, marital status, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, culture, or other factors, our biases impact our world view and how we understand, respond, and react to every experience. What can we do to defeat the unconscious bias that influences who we hire, fire, promote, and value as high potential in our organizations?  Here are six strategies every person can apply right now.

Check Your Initial Thoughts

Your first impressions may be clues to any biases you have.  Ask yourself, “Would I feel the same way, if this person were part of a different group?”  Pause long enough to give yourself time to process what you are doing and how biases might be affecting your decision.

Be Logical

Utilize the power of logic.  Process how many people you actually know that conform to your actual bias.  You will likely find that the number of people that conform to your bias that you personally know is quite few.  Avoid allowing urgency or professional pressures to cause you to override logic and default to bias.

Focus On Skills And Eliminate Distractions

Ensure job candidates go through the same selection process when hiring for an open position.  Define clear evaluation criteria and standards prior to reviewing resumes.  Implement blind resume reviews, eliminating any identifying factors that could bias hiring managers.   Avoid unstructured interviews by using assessments and predetermined interview questions.

Check the Data

Review company hiring trends over a specified period time.  Does the data reveal a tendency toward hiring White males and away from hiring underrepresented people groups?  Is there evidence of a preference for candidates under 30 years of age?

While management may stand in denial over any internal corporate bias, disproving the data in company records may reveal another story. Look at the data.

Tackle the “M” Word – Microaggression

You may have seen or experienced a time when someone was new and tried to join in a conversation with a group and they responded by acting as if the person wasn’t in the room, by physically turning away from them or by talking to everyone around the person never acknowledging their presence. Or perhaps, you were the one, consciously or unconsciously, who ignored the new person.  With body language, words and distinctly pernicious behaviors, we send subtle and not so subtle signals that adversely impact our current and future interactions with individuals we encounter at work and throughout our circles of influence.  These all too familiar behavioral and verbal indignities that convey insulting, unwelcoming and sometimes intimidating comments about race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and gender are called microaggressions.  As team members become aware of who they typically interact with, how they interact with one another and how their behavior and language affects others in their workspace, the environment becomes more equitable for everyone and the effects of unconscious bias dissipate.

Be Intentional

Act as if the bias doesn’t exist. Intentionally adjust behavior to counter any biases you tend to exhibit. Set a month long specific, measurable goal to try new language and behaviors and note the differences in your encounters with team members.  Don’t hold so rigidly to what you think you know, that you disregard evidence of anything that might change your mind and thereby change your actions

Promote Connectedness

Value difference and concentrate on commonalities.  Lead to connect ideas and people — as one who builds bridges between cultures, between gender, between generations, trying to find common ground. Reach out to people who are different and talk about music, food, movies, books or sports.  As you realize how little difference exists, bias begins to fade.

The bottom line is this:  The desire to defeat unconscious bias is not enough.  In order to see organizational improvement and increased productivity, strategies have to be implemented in the workplace leader to leader, team to team and business unit by business unit. Desire is a powerful force for change.  However, a rational and open mind are the necessary tools.  One without the other gets us nowhere. To defeat unconscious bias, we must have an awareness of unconscious biases, use our thoughts to weaken them and behave in ways that run counter to what our unconscious biases tell us to.

1 Porter, Jane. “You’re More Biased Than You Think.” Jane Porter 10.06.14 5:33 AM., 6 Oct. 2014. Web. 4 Oct. 2016.

Career Momentum, Inc. – Madison, WI Announces New Chief Talent Manager


Allison photo

October 20, 2015— Cory Erickson, Chief Executive Officer and President of Career Momentum, Inc., a Madison-based talent management consulting firm affiliated with Career Partners International, is pleased to announce the hire of Allison Cooley as Chief Talent Manager. “At this stage in the life of our business, Allison is the perfect addition to our staff. With her guidance, we’ll be able to continue the growth we’ve seen in our career transition area and increase our executive coaching, team and leadership development offerings. Her knowledge and background also make her a valuable leadership partner for me as we look toward the next level of our success. I’m excited about the possibilities for the business and the opportunities that will come our way due to Allison’s hire,” stated Erickson.

Allison joins Career Momentum as chief talent manager responsible for overseeing the delivery of the firm’s industry leading talent management programs and services. In addition to overseeing program delivery, Allison will work with a select group of career transition clients and facilitate talent management programs. Allison stated, “This opportunity is a perfect fit for me at this stage of my career. The owner and staff at Career Momentum are top notch, the programs and assessments we offer are varied and well designed, and every day I’ll be in a position to help people achieve greater success, which is very important to me.”

Allison comes with a wealth of talent management experience having spent more than 25 years in the field working with Fortune 500 organizations and small businesses as a consultant, coach, facilitator and senior leader. Over her career, Allison has inspired more than 20,000 individuals to identify and utilize their strengths, overcome obstacles and reach a higher level of success, most recently as owner at Effectability, LLC, an organization dedicated to building organizational and leadership capability. Allison’s experience, her energy and candor, and her deep knowledge of human behavior will be a welcome addition to Career Momentum’s staff as she replaces Clara Hurd Nydam, founder of the organization, who will retire December 31.

Career Momentum is a talent management consulting firm that has been doing business in Madison since 1994. As an equity owner in Career Partners International, Career Momentum provides services to clients worldwide in talent management such as: employee assessment, leadership, employee development, succession planning, and outplacement.

For Questions: Contact Cory Erickson at (608)274-2430 or
Or visit,

About Career Momentum, Inc.
Career Momentum is a talent management consulting firm that has been doing business in Madison since 1994. As an equity owner in Career Partners International, Career Momentum provides talent management services such as employee assessment, executive coaching and leadership, employee development, succession planning, and outplacement to clients worldwide.

About Career Partners International
Established in 1987, Career Partners International is one of the world’s largest providers of talent management solutions with more than 250 offices in over 45 countries around the world. Organizations of all sizes turn to Career Partners International to successfully assess, engage, develop and transition talent using the expertise of 1600+ professionals in the areas of assessment, executive coaching, leadership development and outplacement services. Additional information can be found by visiting