Reorienting our approach to bias in the workplace


In order to address discrimination within the workplace, many organizations are turning to implicit bias training. Corporations such as Starbucks and Sephora have both implemented one-day trainings after high-profile incidents in which customers have been racially profiled. Implied in these efforts is the belief that a) one-day trainings are sufficient and that b) these trainings remove bias from employees. Through our InclusionBoston philosophy, YW Boston recognizes that neither of these assumptions are correct. To successfully address discrimination, we must transform the way we approach bias in the workplace.

Bias is a part of human nature.

Bias, as defined by YWCA USA, refers to “An orientation toward something or someone, this orientation can be positive, negative or neutral.” As it pertains to our mission to eliminate racism and empower women, YW Boston often discusses bias as it pertains to social groups. For instance, we look at how a person, group, or society treats groups who share a particular identity, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. 

Many people are brought up to believe that holding any social biases is a bad thing. This common belief, often referred to as “colorblindness” when discussing racial bias, approaches bias as a negative, unwanted aspect of society. However, this conceals the fact that we all hold biases on almost everything and everyone, whether that be a positive, negative, or neutral bias. Bias is natural and necessary, a mechanism that we evolved as hunter gathers. In order to stay safe, we have always relied on our quick judgements based in bias. Rather than preventing people from forming negative bias, the belief that all bias is negative encourages people to bury their long-held biases within themselves without interrogation.

Research shows that bias is involuntary, and is most often created beyond our individual control. Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases form within everyone at a young age as they form a sense of their community. As Pacific Standard reports, one study found that “17-month-old infants understand what it means to be part of a group, and base their expectations upon it. The other reports that, at 12 months, babies indicate positive feelings toward people who speak their language.” In one study, researchers showed babies scenarios “in which an individual needed help, and another individual from the same group was present.” The study found that infants “expected this second individual to support her in-group member [and] No such expectation arose when the two individuals were not members of the same group.” 

Early in life, humans begin to form positive associations with people who are similar to them, which can exist around a wide range of social and observable characteristics, such as race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, and body type. They also begin to recognize the expectation that people take care of individuals within their own groups.

Bias can become harmful.

Bias isn’t inherently negative, but it can become a harmful force when connected to institutional and structural power. The associations related to internal bias are learned through socialization within systems of oppression (such as racism, sexism, heteronormativity). As individuals begin to show a favorable bias towards their own in-group, they are concurrently being socialized in a world where certain groups hold a majority of institutional and structural power. Power is defined as the ability to name, define, decide, and implement rules, standards, or policies to serve your needs, wants or desires. By holding institutional and structural power, privileged groups shape the world around us in ways that can harm groups with less power and privilege. When a certain group that holds power (i.e. those who are white, male, able-bodied, etc.) acts in conjunction with their internal biases, they are continuing cycles of structural discrimination which shut out those who do not hold power.

As individuals grow up, they come into contact with these racialized, gendered, discriminatory power structures, transforming their personal bias into prejudice. Prejudice is the “assumption of knowledge about something or someone not rooted in personal experiences with the particular something or someone in question; prejudice is informed by stereotype rather than experience,” as defined by YWCA USA. It is through this corruption that implicit biases influence individuals’ direct behaviors to cause discriminatory outcomes. The pervasive negative consequences of prejudice manifest in our daily social interactions, in mass media, within our workplaces, and our criminal justice system. 

How bias furthers inequities in the workplace

It is through this combination of implicit bias, prejudice, and power that bias becomes a hindrance in the workplace. When people feel most comfortable and protective of people similar to them, they are more likely to seek them out in a professional setting. This may lead to white interviewers preferring white candidates, or male managers providing more opportunities to their fellow male co-workers. In both instances, these professionals distribute power within the office in reaction to their internal biases. Continuing cycles of workplace discrimination lead to an inequitable workplace that may involve distrust and a lack of communication among social groups.

How do we shift our thinking?

People cannot change the fact that they hold biases, but they can change who they see as their in-group. Through early socialization, people are taught that their community includes those of their same race and gender and those who speak their language. If bias naturally arises when individuals seek to take care of their own community, it is crucial that workplaces define themselves as a community. 

Reducing the negative implications of implicit bias in the workplace involves working on both the individual and organizational levels. First, individuals must begin by shedding the belief that we can eliminate our biases. As we have found at YW Boston, workplace discrimination is more likely to be reduced if people are taught to doubt their objectivity and accept they are biased, rather than believing they can be transformed to become “bias-free.” This allows people to see and analyze their own biases, and make clearer decisions about how their bias may inform their behaviors.

Organizations must also commit to breaking the link between biases and behaviors by addressing workplace culture (shared values and collective identity) and climate (what is rewarded, supported, and expected in the organization). As researchers have found, individuals are less likely to act on their biases if the values of anti-racism and racial equity are apparent within organizational culture and climate. In doing so, organizations seek to change the context in which biased individuals operate.

By taking on an institutional responsibility to reduce discrimination, organizations redefine the basis of community within the office. Rather than defining their community primarily by racial, gender, or socioeconomic factors, employees will begin to view their community as the workplace itself. In creating a stronger workplace community, employees will not only feel more united, but also more likely to work on behalf of the office’s common goals.

InclusionBoston can help your organization begin this work.

Recognizing and confronting implicit racial bias is a central component to addressing inequities in the workplace. The first step is to hold conversations about identity and personal experience with your coworkers. YW Boston’s InclusionBoston program works with organizations to build the trust, skills, and understanding necessary to holding open discussions around identity and to advancing change.

Through our full Inclusion Boston program as well as our one-day workshop offerings, participants work on both the individual and organizational level to address bias. Facilitators encourage participants to analyze their personal identities and their communities. By hearing the experiences of their coworkers, participants analyze their internal biases and prejudices that affect others in their workplace. As they analyze how discrimination affects their workplace, and create action-plans to address it, participants commit to viewing their office as a community.

By changing this vision of community away from social factors such as race, age, gender, and ability and toward the goal of the organization as a whole, employees begin to alter their biases to align positively with their coworkers. Organizations must remember, though, that biases cannot be altered in one day. Only with sustained, organization-wide buy-in can a workplace begin to ingrain the values of racial equity into their culture and create lasting change.


About InclusionBoston

InclusionBoston advances diversity, equity, and inclusion by partnering with organizations looking for improved business results. Using our advanced assessment tool and the latest research on behavioral and organizational change, we partner with organizations to create an action plan and provide them with the resources needed to drive lasting change. Our customized, evidence-based approach builds internal capacity and promotes cultural change while supporting organizations throughout their journey.

DE&I Workshops: YW Boston also offers one-day workshops where participants explore frameworks, develop knowledge, and engage in dialogue.

Ready to unlock the power of diversity in the workplace? Click here to learn more about InclusionBoston and request your free consultation.