Many people assume that racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the workplace need to be overt before they can be addressed. This isn’t true. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers may not discriminate against workers because they are part of a protected class. The bill says nothing about whether that discrimination must result from conscious bias.
Today, most employment discrimination is actually caused by unconscious bias. While this can be harder to prove, it’s no less damaging to its victims. Learn how to identify unconscious bias in your workplace, how it can harm workers, and what you can do to stop it.
What Is Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious bias is prejudice for or against someone because of aspects of their identity that isn’t done purposefully. In contrast, conscious bias is deliberately taking discriminatory actions against someone because of a trait like skin color, religion, or gender.
This difference is critical because unconscious bias is far more widespread. Even people who believe they are “color-blind” or otherwise accepting may have subconscious biases that they don’t recognize. This makes it far more challenging to address the effects of unconscious prejudice than conscious racism, sexism, or other biases.
Subconscious prejudice is the result of uncritical acceptance of stereotypes. For example, someone can consciously believe that sexism is wrong but may have internalized the idea that women are bad at math. If this unconscious bias isn’t noticed and accounted for, they may be less likely to hire or promote women into roles that require a lot of math despite their qualifications.
The problem with unconscious prejudice is that it can lead to organization-wide inequities without any one person actively trying to harm or push out minorities. One recruiter or manager with unexamined biases can impact the careers of everyone below them. If these biases are found throughout the organization, it can quickly shape a company’s culture to be hostile to women, people of color, religious minorities, and other protected classes.
The Impact of Unconscious Biases on Workers
While unconscious bias isn’t as blatant on a case-by-case basis as active harassment, it can still seriously harm workers. It is just as harmful to refuse to promote someone because of an unconscious assumption that they’re lazy as it would be to withhold a promotion because they’re Black. Some of the most significant impacts this type of prejudice has on workers include:
- Reduced Job Opportunities: Minorities often struggle to receive the same opportunities and pursue the same jobs as white and male colleagues. Studies have shown that the same resume with an “anglicized” or gender-neutral name is significantly more likely to be considered for an interview than identical resumes with non-European or feminine names. The subconscious bias of the hiring teams often prevents workers from getting jobs in the first place.
- Stalled Career Growth: These biases can make it difficult for victims to continue growing their careers. For instance, women often struggle to receive the same promotions and raises as their male colleagues, particularly if they are mothers, due to the unconscious assumption that they are less dedicated to their jobs.
- Hostile Workplaces: If management has internalized negative stereotypes about specific demographics, the entire organization can develop toxic attitudes towards those groups. Minorities who are hired and promoted may feel uncomfortable, excluded, and unable to report harassment or microaggressions for fear that they will “support” the stereotypes management believes.
Standing Up to Workplace Bias
It should not be your responsibility to fix your employer’s unconscious biases. However, making them aware of these tendencies may fall to you. If that doesn’t lead to change, you may need to take legal action to receive the fair treatment you deserve. Here’s how you can stand up to workplace bias and fight against trends harming your career.
- Talk to your colleagues. The most effective way to determine if unconscious bias is at play in the workplace is to talk with your coworkers. If management consistently appears to discriminate against people of a certain race, religion, or gender, your colleagues have likely noticed as well. Talk to them about their experiences and see if they have noticed anything you may have missed.
- Document trends of discrimination. When you do find trends, document them. For example, collect organization charts for your company and note the relative diversity across the organization and between different levels of authority. Who has been promoted, and who has been fired or forced to resign? These trends are some of the best evidence you have of systemic discrimination.
- Notify Human Resources: Even if you don’t believe it will make a difference, you should still communicate your concerns with the person or department in charge of hiring at your company. This demonstrates that you’re acting in good faith and may occasionally be enough to spur your employer to take anti-bias action.
- Talk to an experienced lawyer. If your concerns are dismissed, it’s time to get help. Consult with a qualified workplace discrimination attorney about your circumstances. They will help you find the best path forward, whether that’s negotiating with your employer or taking legal action.
Pursue Equitable Treatment With Expert Legal Counsel
Because unconscious bias, by definition, is not done on purpose, it can be hard to prove. That’s why it’s critical for you to consult with an experienced employment law attorney if you suspect you and your colleagues are suffering from discrimination caused by subconscious prejudices. At Le Clerc & Le Clerc LLP, we understand how stressful it can be to lose out on opportunities at work because of your identity. We have a strong track record of success helping clients like you pursue compensation for the discrimination they’ve faced at work, no matter the reason. Call 415-445-0900 or contact us online to learn more about how we can help you.