Systemic impact of implicit bias in organizations
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Systemic impact of implicit bias in organizations

The systemic impact of implicit bias is a strong organizational preference, often unconscious and seldom explicitly acknowledged, for a particular type of employee reflecting ‘hidden’ preferences for gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, personality type, age, class, etc. (generally aspects over which people have no choice or control).

Specific types of behavior, in particular management and leadership styles, are encouraged and rewarded in an organization, while others are punished. There is usually development of strong ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, with the former making the rules (and benefiting from them, often unconsciously) and the latter acutely aware of being disadvantaged by the rules, and forced to ask for resources which flow freely to the ‘in’ group.

The preference is very subtle, but extends from recruitment approaches (where is the organization looking for its new talent, for instance, and what kind of candidate applies?) to promotion (who is placed on the fast track in management development programs, and who is asked for key overseas jobs?) and leadership (what kind of diversity exists in the top 200?). Certain functions are favoured in different organizations, and educational background plays a strong role in determining those who are eventually promoted to senior leadership.

Most organizations, and the individuals working for them, unconsciously favour those who look, act and feel like the present leadership, and they in turn are usually clones of the leaders before them.The preferences are established over time, and then reinforced and maintained by the organization’s culture. One of the results of this continuous self‐selection process is that there appears to be a deep‐rooted desire at many boards to preserve traditional male networks and the chemistry and comfort level that go with them.

Many leaders and companies continue to shy away from the admission that there is an organizational preference for, or bias towards, a certain ‘success image’ or type of leader within their organizations. This acknowledgement would require existing management boards to undergo ruthless self‐analysis regarding their own paths to the top within the organization, and few senior leaders are willing to undergo this scrutiny.

Metrics are crucial to successful change management initiatives, and structural organizational change is needed to remove many of the barriers created by implicit bias. Most industries and organizations need numerical ‘proof’, so a systemic model for assessment, implementation, evaluation and measurement of diversity and inclusion initiatives geared to removing bias is crucial. Organizations not taking this aspect into consideration have little chance of creating real value through their diversity initiatives.

Implicit bias explains why discrimination persists in organizations ‐‐ uncovering how personal and organizational preference works is the key to achieving well‐balanced and high‐performing leadership teams, increasing employee engagement and boosting innovation.

Mary Farmer is lecturer and lead faculty in Human Resource Management for the Glion Online MBA, and is full-time faculty at Glion Institute of Higher Education.