How unconscious bias affects the workplace experience

Unconscious bias is everywhere. It shows up in the language we use, the way we relate to each other, and the way we make decisions.  

In the workplace experience, unconscious bias affects every level of an organization. From recruitment and hiring to employee experience, career development, and management training, addressing this takes time and effort. Where do you start? This conversation is a good place. 

In Episode 2, we talk with Pin-ya Tseng, a facilitator at diversity and inclusion strategy firm Paradigm. We’ll talk about unconscious bias and how it shows up in the workplace, including in recruiting, hiring, and in meetings––just to name a few scenarios. With a background in social psychology and scientific writing, Pin-ya develops and facilitates Paradigm’s high impact trainings, drawing from years of experience in psychological research, teaching, and leadership development.

We discuss how

  • Bias shows up in three primary business contexts 
  • Growth mindset and how it affects innovation and risk-taking at organizations, and the workplace experience
  • Real-world examples of how unconscious bias influences business decision-making 
  • How to go about applying this to the decisions we make in our working lives

What does it take to radically transform and disrupt our workplaces? Below is an edited transcript of Episode 2 of Envoy’s podcast, Empowered: Envisioning Workplaces That Work, which explores what thriving, diverse, and innovative workplaces look and feel like, and what makes them tick. Spoiler alert: it’s the people. 

We engage in timely discussions about the workplace experience and celebrate those who challenge the status quo in all aspects of the contemporary workplace––through the lens of the all-important human elements. Hear workplace experience leaders, creative problem solvers, and other cultural producers reveal how they create the workplaces they want to see in the world: their wins, pain points, and all the moments in between. 

You can listen to this episode and to other full episodes on our podcast series page, or stream via your preferred streaming platform. 

What is unconscious bias, and how does it affect our workplace experience? 

Welcome! I’m happy to have you here today to talk about your work at Paradigm as a facilitator. We met when you led an unconscious bias training here at Envoy that I thought was powerful and really necessary. Let’s start there. What is unconscious bias and why is it important that we unpack this idea within a workplace experience context?

PT: Great place to start! Unconscious bias is my bread and butter. Over our lifetimes, we are exposed to the same patterns over and over again through what we have seen out in the world. Whether from TV and movies, what we’ve heard our friends and family say in conversation, or based on our own educational experiences, we pick up these patterns that we start to use as shortcuts for our own decision making and in interactions. 

That’s unconscious bias: these mental shortcuts that we form based on these patterns that we’ve been exposed to over time.

Most of the time, that process is helpful because we can’t rely on thoughtful, conscious decision making all the time, because we simply don’t have the time or we don’t have the cognitive capacity to do so. The problem with unconscious bias arises when the patterns that we rely on end up being things like cultural stereotypes that are not based in truth and often, when applied, can ultimately disadvantage or harm certain groups.

When it comes to unconscious bias in the workplace experience, the conversation in the last decade has moved away from addressing explicit bias or overt discrimination towards uncovering how an organizations might be unintentionally inviting bias. As these organizations are trying to build more inclusive workplaces, the data still shows that people from different backgrounds are still having a harder time breaking into these companies, moving up, and obtaining seniority. 

It turns out that when we’re making workplace decisions quickly or without a lot of thought or structure, our unconscious biases actually end up leading us to make less objective and more stereotype-driven decisions. This advantages certain groups and disadvantages others.

Counteracting similarity bias (or avoiding the Craigslist roommate interview structure)

What are some of the ways that unconscious bias shows up in the hiring process, in recruiting, and beyond? I was struck in the workshop you led by the idea of similarity bias. I almost think of it as the model of the Craigslist roommate interview. 

PT: Exactly!

I remember being asked what my favorite movies were and things that I don’t think had a bearing on if I would be a good roommate. Perhaps that’s a silly example, but I’m curious to hear from you: what does unconscious bias influence in the workplace experience?

PT: Questions like “What did you do over the weekend?” or “where are you flying in from? Where’s home?” or, like you said, “What are your favorite movies?” end up creating these similarity biases. We judge someone based on whether they like the same things that we do, or if they come from the same background, for example. That has nothing to do with the role, the team, or how work gets done. It becomes a non-objective criteria for making those decisions. What you should be asking is about their technical skills. 

For example, I always like to share this story that comes from when I first interviewed at Paradigm. I’m from Ohio and the hiring manager at the time interviewing me was also from Ohio. I showed up during breakfast and she couldn’t sit in silence with me, so she started to ask me some questions and found out that I had just flown in from Ohio. I could see her face light up, but then she shut it down really quickly. I was a little confused at the time, but it turns out that is because of the strategy that we recommend. Save small talk until the end of interviews to avoid introducing potential similarity bias.

At the time, even though she recognized that I was from Ohio, we tried to save small talk until the end to keep the interview itself more objective. Engaging me more and asking questions that would ultimately make me feel more comfortable––and more similar to her––would lead to an advantage that I would have versus someone else from a different state.

The desire to connect comes from such a good place. When I’ve been a hiring manager, I do want to make people feel comfortable. Something that the unconscious bias training helped me surface is that I can create a comfortable interview situation without asking personal questions. How did you get involved with being a facilitator at Paradigm? Did you get involved with this kind of work prior to that? 

PT: Paradigm is the meeting of several of my life experiences and passions. I mentioned that I’m from Ohio. I grew up as one of the only few Asian students in my Ohio suburb. Being this kid with this funny name has always led me to feel different and wonder whether my cultural background has actually affected or held me back in my experience in the world. 

Coupled with that, I’ve been interested in psychology from an early age, and eventually went to graduate school for my master’s degree in social psychology. During the time that I was in grad school, I taught several psychology classes to undergrads. I fell in love with teaching.

Getting to share decades of influential research, and relating these studies and concepts to my students’ own lives, was so much fun for me. However, there was still this gap between sharing the theory and applying it. 

I didn’t want to do research for the sake of research without feeling like it was making a difference in the world. I heard about Paradigm and the work they were doing in bridging academic research with changing the landscape of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. That was fascinating to me.

Fast-forward to Paradigm bringing me on board, and now I get to develop and facilitate our workshops. I get to turn academic theory into meaningful application, to teach for the sake of making people’s lives better––and I have my own personal sense of feeling accepted in my differences.

Bridging the gap between academic research and applicable strategies

I would guess you receive feedback when you do these trainings, or even before the training happens, from stakeholders at the companies you work with who are maybe a little intimidated or say, “I don’t even know where to start.” I like what you said about bridging that gap between the research and the academic context into tangible, real-world applicable strategies to workplace experience. What are some ways that you bridge that gap?

PT: Just to make sure I understand the question, you mean bridging the gap between having the intention for diversity and inclusion to doing something about it?

Yes. In the training you facilitated here at Envoy, for example, there were some powerful statistics. What seemed to be particularly effective is that you would lead an exercise and then based on the answers that folks gave, you would back it up with research or a real-world example. 

PT: With research, it’s interesting that these studies have been replicated over and over again by different organizations and institutions across the world. We see over and over again the impact of unconscious bias and the benefits of diversity and inclusion. That’s hard to argue against. 

When we’re training these organizations and their audiences are very analytical, their products are very technical, providing data and research resonates well. They start to realize, “Hey, this is a true phenomenon. Even if we had suspicions of it in the first place, this is how it’s showing up.”

For example, we share a study about how seeing a name on a resume can lead us to shift our criteria for what is important for that role. The study, to sum it up, and you probably remember, is about how people review two resumes. The resume with more formal education and experience will usually be chosen for the role of police chief, but if you add a name to the top that is gendered either masculine or feminine, that changes the evaluation criteria. When the one with more experience has the more masculine name, people will end up choosing that even though by default they would choose the one with more education.

Those are the sorts of studies where people realize like, “Hey, this is actually how it shows up. I may not realize that I’m doing this in a moment or I may not even realize what criteria I’m using to to make those decisions.” By bringing that awareness to people, they start to realize that, “Hey, we need to fix this,” and bring in strategies to do so.

The second part, or the last part of that study I just mentioned, was one where researchers asked people first what is more important for the role of police chief: education or experience?

People say education, and only after that do they give them the resumes with the names on them. Even when that resume has a feminine name for the role of education, they ended up choosing that one because they’ve already pre-established that criteria.

We design our trainings to bring in studies that highlight what is happening and how this affects how we’re making decisions in the workplace. We then show people what actions and strategies they can take to manage those biases.

Talk me through the workshop and training development process. What topics and themes do you focus on exploring and what drives this for you? How do you come around to leading a workshop on unconscious bias for example? Is this all backed by your data and research?

PT: At Paradigm our focus is in translating the data and research on topics related to diversity and inclusion into something to help people in their day-to-day jobs and then make that accessible to people through our trainings. For example, it is one thing to, as I said, understand that we have unconscious bias, but it’s another to understand how that shows up in, say, the resume review process, and how we can actually implement strategies to manage those biases.

We do trainings on a variety of different topics around which there is a lot of research. We’ll do trainings on growth mindset, on belonging, on inclusion as leaders, or on inclusion generally in a workplace. Traditionally, we do most of our trainings in person and live, but I’m super excited to share that we’re rolling out our e-learning version of our trainings later this summer. This  is going to make diversity and inclusion training so much more accessible for employees and organizations that haven’t actually been able to make that investment yet.

More accessibility is great! What is growth mindset?

PT: Growth and fixed mindset are terms that come from Stanford Psychologist, Carol Dweck, who uses them to talk about the way that we view talents and abilities. When we have more of a fixed mindset, it’s this myth of the natural that we’re naturally brilliant, that we’re naturally good at X, Y, and Z, or that we’re naturally not and that never changes. The growth mindset is the opposite of that, where we assume that our talents and abilities can be grown and improved upon. Even if we’re terrible at something in the beginning, we can always get better. Even if we’re really good at something already, we can still improve and grow in that.

Thank you for defining that for me. Can we think about growth mindset impacting assumptions based on resume information? For example, that more education means someone is better at or more prepared for the role instead of envisioning how to train this person to be successful in the role. Is that a good way to think about it?

PT: Precisely. That is one of the benefits when we have more of a growth mindset as an individual or a culture: we’re more likely to see potential for growth. When you see, as you said, two years of experience, we might not just make a make or break decision off of that. We might recognize that, “Hey, this particular skill that we’re looking for is one that we can teach and grow.” You don’t need to already have that skill if you have other qualifications that would be relevant to that role as well.

Another business benefit of a growth mindset is that as an organization, we are more likely to talk about mistakes without feeling like they need to be covered up. Being able to talk about mistakes means that we’re more likely to take healthy risks that lead to more innovation and creativity, without feeling like we have to be put into a box. That we can share riskier ideas without fear of rejection or retaliation––and that when we make mistakes, they are seen more as a sign of growth than a mistake. 

We can teach other people about how to not make that mistake, to reflect and determine what went wrong. Shifting the conversation allows us to think about how to avoid that in the future. If I make a mistake and feel like I can’t talk about it, I’m more likely to make that mistake again in the future––and other people will, too.

Building diversity and inclusion into workplace experience strategy

Would it be safe to say that this growth mindset strategy could be useful when envisioning how to diversify your workplace and improve workplace experience?

PT: Absolutely. Growth mindset means that we are, again, more likely to take risks. Diversity and inclusion requires investment. It’s not going to be something we solve for right off the bat. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take a lot of effort. 

By having more of a growth mindset, even if we aren’t getting to the results and the outcomes that we want immediately, we still realize that it’s worth putting in the effort so that we get to the place where we need to be.

I can imagine that after these trainings, there’s a multitude of questions that you get around follow up, the “Wow, that was incredible, now what?” phenomenon. What’s the most common feedback you receive after a training?

PT: We focus a lot in our trainings on what individuals can do to manage their own biases and foster more inclusion, but many of the strategies that we discuss involve process and structural change at the team or organizational level. 

A one-off training is never going to solve your diversity and inclusion problem. The answer to the “now what?” phenomenon post-training is the responsibility of every person that’s gone through our trainings to try and solve.

That said, we do continue to partner with a lot of our clients after trainings to give them resources to make sure that they are implementing these key learnings. For example, we’ve designed email nudges and discussion guides to ensure that teams and organizations continued to apply and discuss what they learn in our trainings.

I often hear feedback around that, “Light bulb moment”—people realizing that they do in fact have unconscious bias, but that everybody does and that we are all accountable for managing those biases. Some folks share with us that they want to redesign their interview questions, others share that they want to be more intentional about not interrupting in meetings. Seeing those individual commitments is really, really encouraging.

Do organizations ever share numbers with you or quantifiable, tangible results on how Paradigm trainings have affected workplace experience?

PT: Yes. We have followed up with organizations six to eight months or even 12 months after we conduct a training, and administered post-workshop surveys. What we see is that over 90% of people remember the strategies that they committed to back when they took the workshop first. Presumably people are still aware of what the strategies are, aware of how bias is showing up in their work, and they’re implementing the strategies that they are purportedly remembering. That’s the fun outcome that we see, is that these training results and these training actions are sustainable.

You can’t have diversity without inclusion: assessing the impact of D&I trainings

Something that’s been talked about with other guests on the podcast is how diversity and inclusion is a process. Getting people in the door is the first step, but workplaces need to make sure that those folks are set up for success once they’re in the door, that there’s programs and resources available to them. It’s one thing to do a training, but then there’s got to be sustained engagement with these ideas so that they’re being put into practice on a daily basis and actually changing the status quo of the way things are done.

PT: There’s plenty of research out there that talks about how diversity and inclusion training doesn’t work. The main reason for this is because the trainings themselves aren’t context specific or action-oriented. The other piece is that a lot of organizations think that training is a ‘one and done’ thing. If we rely on or adopt that mindset, we’re not going to be able to, as you said, sustain change and create more diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

People might be excited for the first days or weeks after a training, but unless teams are having their own discussions about what changes they can make, and how these biases show up specifically on their teams, they’re not going to be able to bring more diversity and inclusion to those teams.

Tell me more about this critical take on diversity and inclusion trainings not being effective. That’s not something I’ve come across. 

PT: As I mentioned, a lot of diversity and inclusion training is just explaining what an unconscious bias is. They explain the types of unconscious bias, how it shows up in the workplace, but it’s not context-specific. 

In our trainings, especially in our unconscious bias workshop, we discuss how bias shows up in three different contexts.  First is the recruiting and hiring process and phase, the team dynamics in terms of communication and voice, and thinking about who feels more or less comfortable speaking up. Then, we look at how to foster belonging for new hires through social events or your physical environment. Finally, we look at career development, and how bias impacts advancement or promotion decisions, or how we evaluate work or give feedback to each other.

When we target how bias shows up in those specific contexts tied to research and studies that back that up, and then with each context that we bring up, we introduce specific actions and strategies. That makes it easy to remember in the future so that the next time you’re looking at two resumes, you’ll remember, “Oh, we talked specifically about the situation. What should I be doing right now to manage my biases? How do I slow down and make the more objective or inclusive decision?” 

Framing it this way makes it easier to remember what we had talked about weeks or months ago in the actual training. when we make it so context specific.

Core values are important, but are they inclusive enough? 

The idea of defining core values has become a staple in envisioning the workplace mission, but these core values don’t necessarily translate or take into account representation, differences in experience, background, and opportunity. For example, it’s great to say, “We champion innovation,” but whose innovation is being championed? How is the company ensuring that multiple perspectives are being considered and multiple ways to define innovation are being considered? How can the idea of inclusion address some of these gaps in defining and living an organization’s core values or mission?

PT: The good news is that we are starting to hear from more companies that want to understand how diversity and inclusion fits with their core values. They’re having that conversation about whether their existing values are inclusive or antithetical to some of their diversity and inclusion goals. 

The key is, as you mentioned, to make sure that we have those conversations and that they include different voices, because innovation isn’t inherently itself a bad value. You do want to hear what that means to different people, how that value shows up at work for different roles  and on different teams, and shape the definition of those values around what comes out of that conversation.

Core values are specific to every company, so there’s no blanket best practice on how they should look. We do need to realize that how we define company values determines who wants to work there, who we choose to work there, and who will succeed in your organization.

I think specifically about the meeting structure, a real-world scenario that was addressed in the unconscious bias training that we did. This involves who gets to speak, who is given time to speak, who’s interrupted, who’s doing the interrupting, and the language used. I’m curious about how we’re going to see the idea of core values shift and what that’s going to look like when it comes to that process as you said, or those components of recruiting, hiring, on-boarding process.

PT: If your value is, “We champion innovation,” I think the word champion comes with a lot of semantic connotations. Championing to me feels like a very outspoken, forward-leaning word. If that’s the word that we use to define bringing innovation to our organization, I think that can show up in meetings as, “We need to be louder to be heard,” or “whoever is the most outspoken or talks the most ends up being the person that carries the conversation and gets the most reward and recognition.”

Exactly.

PT: In the hiring process, this shows up in how you define those core values, how they’re perceived by your actual candidates and applicants, and even in how you design your interview questions. 

If your value is, “We champion innovation,” and we have these assumptions that that means that someone is super outspoken, we might then ask questions like, for example, “In your last team, how often did you speak up in your team’s meetings?” That might be the actual question we end up asking, even though that’s not what we’re looking for in terms of innovation. 

The actual values that we choose, and how we define those values, shape what we ultimately look for, and who is even working in our organizations, and who is going to thrive and succeed there.

Let’s talk more about inclusion. The trainings like the one you led here at Envoy seemed to fall into the inclusion space as you’re sharing resources and providing tools for people to think about how they show up as a co-worker and a colleague, and to look at the interpersonal habits and dynamics within the workplace that are shaping everyone’s sense of belonging. How can companies build in regular opportunities for growth and learning specifically around inclusion in the workplace?

PT: I recently had someone in a workshop tell me that diversity is being invited to the meeting, inclusion is being asked to speak, and belonging is feeling like you’ve been heard. I liked that analogy because it gets at one of the core themes of our work in D&I. Having diversity in terms of the numbers itself is never enough unless there’s this environment and a company culture where people feel like they can contribute their ideas, and their thoughts are valued, all while being their authentic selves.

In addition to creating that understanding of why inclusion is important, companies should also actively solicit feedback—from managers doing one-on-one check-ins, to annual company inclusion and engagement surveys, to understand how people from all backgrounds are experiencing and perceiving their company culture. From there, organizations can understand where there are gaps, for which specific groups, and then develop programs and processes to break down those specific barriers to inclusion.

Diversity and inclusion trends: Avoid ‘one size fits all’ approaches to training and strategy 

Are there trends that you hope will surface within the diversity, inclusion, belonging––and equity is now an important word to include in that acronym?

PT: The first trend is around collecting that employee feedback. Another trend is that companies are being more intentional about using data to guide their D&I efforts so that they can understand what’s going on in their company. 

A lot of teams and organizations tend to use ‘a one size fits all’ approach in terms of their D&I training and strategy. If you don’t know where, say in your hiring process, candidates from underrepresented groups are being passed over more or whose voices are being heard more or less than others in decision making, you’re not going to be investing your resources and targeting your strategies where they’re needed most. 

Investing more in elements such as pass through, rate analysis, pay equity analysis, or inclusion surveys will surface that invaluable information.

Another trend that I’ve noticed a lot and has been brought up a lot in my workshops is around remote inclusion. More and more company workforces are becoming distributed and employees are increasingly located away from their team members. As that happens, inclusion becomes more of a challenge because you can’t turn your chair to your colleague to chat or go out to lunch together as a team. It takes more creativity and intentional effort to do things like setting up coffee virtual chats with people, or sending a quick Slack message to say, “Good morning,” or, “What are your weekend plans?” 

I think as video conferencing and workplace technology becomes better in facilitating actual work collaboration, we’re going to need to leverage a lot of those technologies to better foster inclusion as well.

Is there someone, or maybe multiple people, that you are inspired by and that you feel are truly challenging the status quo of the workplace experience?

PT: I know this sounds kitschy, but honestly, I am the most inspired by our clients because they’re the actual D&I practitioners that I am personally working with day to day. Paradigm is fortunate to work with some of the most forward-thinking and innovative companies out there, not only in terms of their product, but also how they’re thinking about their people. It’s not just the D&I and HR points of contact that we work with, but also the individual attendees of my trainings. 

I often have people come up to me after workshops who are super excited about what they’ve just heard, and many of them have already been actively involved in D&I inside or outside of their organizations, but now they have this shared language and context to talk about it with other people on their teams. They are the ones carrying the momentum of our trainings forward and creating change in their companies.

For me, it’s personally motivating to come back to an organization that I trained a year ago and then see how much it’s grown. For example, if they have new employee resource groups (ERGs), have developed a D&I charter for their company, or created new objective interview questions in the rubrics. They’re seeing these results from their D&I numbers and in their employee feedback.

D&I work is a lot of emotional labor sometimes and I would not be able to continue to do what I do if it wasn’t so clear to me that people from all different levels, all different industries and backgrounds are so invested in D&I and that they’re just hungry to know how to do it.

The worst trainings for me aren’t the ones where people are actively asking questions or digging into the research because that means that they’re interested. The worst type of workshop for me is when people just listen to me with blank looks on their faces and then they get up and leave, where I’m left feeling, “I don’t know if I did anything here.” 

When people actively come up to me afterwards I’m like, “Oh, this is great. This is resonating. People are going to do something about this now,” and then I can leave feeling like I’ve made a difference. 

I think the role of the workshop can be that of a catalyst, that’s definitely how I felt. I learned a lot from your workshop and there was also a lot of content that was familiar. Just having the workshop can be illuminating, and it can make people feel seen to hear someone up there in a position of relative power giving these diversity and inclusion ideas a platform. Having them represented is super important.

Thank you so much Pin-ya! It has been a pleasure talking with you. Where can listeners and readers find out more about the work you do with Paradigm and just more about you and what you’re doing in general?

PT: Thank you, Susannah! Visit the Paradigm blog, where we regularly post new research or findings as well as our own organization’s thoughts around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. 


We all have a story to tell about our working lives: how we got there, what we experience, and what we can do to make it better. Find more information on this episode of Empowered in the episode show notes. For more details on how to get involved, listen to full episodes and discover more about how to challenge the status quo in your workplace, check out the Empowered series page. You can also read episode recaps right here on the Envoy blog.

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