Let’s say you’re borrowing a colleague’s laptop, and you notice that you’re making an awful lot of typos. The letters y and z are transposed, and you realize that you had borrowed a German-Austrian keyboard. You naively assumed that everyone used the same keyboard you did.
Biases about people work the same way. You see someone who is similar to someone else in one way, and you jump to the conclusion that they are similar in other ways as well. If it’s true, great. But often it’s not true, and if you treat the new person according to your preconceived notions, you may be guilty of unconscious bias.
Unconscious biases are based on stereotypes, and they can be subtle. So how do you stop yourself from doing things that you don’t even realize you are doing?
Gather information. Start by breaking your unconscious assumptions, and acknowledge that differences exist. Just because one group of people is more likely to act a certain way does not mean any particular member of that group will act that way.
Proactively seek out examples of people who act against their stereotypes. Read books, watch movies, and broaden your circle of friends and colleagues. As you become familiar with more facets of people from different groups, you will become better at seeing them as individuals.
Use facts, not feelings. Base your decisions on objective facts and data, not opinions or intuition. When evaluating people, focus on concrete examples of what they did or did not do. Recall their specific characteristics, as well as times they acted against any stereotype to which they might be assigned.
When concrete, explicit criteria are not available, people use the information that is available, so make objective information accessible. For example, make sure job requirements list what is really needed to do that job, not characteristics typically shared by people in that role.
Slow down. People are more likely to make bad assumptions when they feel rushed, so don’t make decisions when you are distracted, stressed, or pressured. Your brain likes to take shortcuts, and categorizing people is faster than learning their individual quirks and capabilities.
Be wary of making rigid first impressions. If you make a snap judgment about someone, you may then interpret that person’s future actions in a way that confirms your initial judgment.
Ask for help. Seek feedback on your decisions. Ask others to point out when you are making assumptions, especially in the absence of facts.
Strive to create diverse decision-making groups by gender, experience, ethnicity, background, and so on. Enlisting others to help you with your goal will also help them recognize their own unconscious biases.
With some conscious effort, you can greatly reduce your own unconscious bias, treat others more fairly—and maybe even learn to type on a different keyboard.
Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (www.acs.org/network-careers).