Other people discriminate on the basis or age, sex, national origin, or even silly things such as what university they attended or whether they ask for soda or pop. You don't. You always look for the best candidate, and that's that.

Well, it's not. You suffer from unconscious bias, and your brain is tricking you into thinking you don't.

Kristen Pressner, Global Head Human Resources, at Roche Diagnostics gave a presentation at UNLEASH in London last week where she addressed the concept of unconscious bias and how our brains lie to us.

That's right: Your brain tells you that you aren't biased but the reality is you are biased. All of us are biased. The key is once you understand that unconscious bias exists, there's a simple test.

How are you biased?

You've lived life and you've had experiences. The result is, your brain expects that things will be as they have in the past. This isn't a bad thing. In fact, if we had to gather information externally and look at every option we'd never get anything done. 

As Pressner points out, these "shortcuts" allow us to get through life. She said: 

Without them, we'd have no chance at processing all the information coming in. Imagine, if every single time you'd have to sit and really think through how to

  • open every door or

  • pick out the best fruit or

  • tell if that dog coming at you on the street is a friendly one or not

But, when it comes to hiring, promoting, and paying people, our biases can make things unfair. It doesn't really matter if you buy a mushy apple, but if your unconscious bias prevents you from hiring the best person, that is bad for your business, and illegal.

How bias sneaks into your life

Pressner says she's always been an advocate for women. She, herself, is a working mom with a husband that stays at home, so you would think she would have no problem seeing women as leaders, but she found out she was biased. She shared an experience where two employees, one male, and one female came in to ask about their compensation.

Pressner told the female she was pretty sure her compensation was fine but told the male she'd look into it. The requests weren't made at the same time, but a few days later she realized the requests were identical--so why hadn't she treated them identically?

Because, she said, she had an unconscious bias. We expect men, Pressner said to have these characteristics:

  • Leader
  • Provider
  • Assertive
  • Strong
  • Driven

And we expect women to have these characteristics:

  • Supportive
  • Emotional 
  • Helpful
  • Sensitive
  • Fragile

Did her unconscious bias make her willing to look into the male's compensation because she expected men to be providers?

Flip it to test it

Pressner shared the easy way to fix this. Anytime you run into a situation where your unconscious bias may be influencing you (and we're not talking about picking a line at the grocery store), you can do a quick flip of the facts.

So, is it okay to label women as supportive, emotional, helpful, sensitive, and fragile? If you flipped that and labeled all men as supportive, emotional, helpful, sensitive, and fragile, you'd probably recognize that you aren't looking at the individual--you're looking through your biased lens.

If you find yourself thinking, "men don't want paternity leave, so we don't need to offer it," flip it to say, "women don't want maternity leave, so we don't need to offer it." That's a quick check that your thoughts are biased.

It doesn't just have to be about gender. We have biases that come in all shapes and sizes. "Fat people are lazy." Flip that, "Skinny people are lazy." "People with college degrees are better employees than people without." Flip that. "People without college degrees are better employees than people with them."

When you are making a decision to hire, fire, promote, or assign a plum project, you need to consider the employee sitting in front of you, not your unconscious bias. Yes, maybe Bob is assertive (which is stereotypically male) but that doesn't mean he's not also sensitive (stereotypically female). Jane may wish to stay home after the birth of her baby, but she may wish to return to work. Steve may be the one who wants to stay home after the birth of his baby.

Once you start applying this test, you can really see how your biases keep you from seeing the actual humans sitting in front of you. In other words, it forces your brain to tell the truth.