How to counteract unconscious biases

By Cheryl Meyer

Everyone has unconscious attitudes that stem from their ethnic origin, gender, age, experiences, and culture.

"Those stereotypes cause us to have a bias toward people and influence who we engage and who we don't engage," said Anthony Newkirk, senior manager of diversity and inclusion at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

Fortunately, there are ways CPAs can counteract unconscious bias in the workplace:

Make sure your leaders are on board. Training is unlikely to be effective without buy-in from leadership, said Carlee Beth Hawkins, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois—Springfield, and a researcher with Project Implicit, a virtual laboratory focused on unconscious bias.

Conduct an organizational assessment and hold periodic training sessions. Respond to the results of assessments by conducting management training, employee training, and focus groups, as well as changing policies and practices or including groups that do not feel included in the workplace culture and its processes, Newkirk said.

Present data that grab people's attention. Collect data and "identify the situations where implicit bias is most likely to influence decision-making and behavior," Hawkins said.

Establish processes that eliminate factors that can lead to unconscious bias. For instance, some employers are removing names of candidates, the universities they attended, and even addresses from résumés to enable unbiased hiring decisions.

Be culturally intelligent. "Expand your capacity to adapt, and use your cultural knowledge as a skill set to enable you to effectively engage differences," Newkirk said.

Be deliberate. When you need to make crucial decisions, slow down. "Decisions made quickly or under stress or fatigue are more likely to be influenced by implicit bias," Hawkins said.

Make group decisions. Key decisions for the organization should be made by a group of people who offer a diversity of thought.

Be aware of favoritism. "Do you offer challenging projects to one person (or group of people) and give easier ones to another?" Hawkins asked. Instead, distribute praise and opportunities to all top performers.

Make sure decision-making processes are clear-cut. "Create concrete and strict criteria" for evaluating job candidates, making promotion decisions, and assigning projects, Hawkins said.

Be aware that unconscious bias exists and attempt to unlearn behaviors. Unconscious bias doesn't have to exhibit itself as a malicious trait. It is a way of thinking that is ingrained and should be a topic of conversation. Be humble and candid with yourself and others. "Be honest," Newkirk said, "and open yourself to change." 

Editor's note: This article is excerpted from "How CPA Firms Can Counteract Unconscious Bias," CPA Insider, March 7, 2016.

Cheryl Meyer (meyerwrites@gmail.com) is a freelance writer based in California.

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