Without Overcoming Unconscious Bias, Diversity Doesn't Mean Inclusivity

a girl bridging the gap between bias and reality

Today’s global world values diversity and inclusion for reasons that are self-evident: They allow for greater cultural exchange, encourage harmony among different cultures, and make everyone’s lives more beautiful and interesting. For businesses, those humanistic values also have potential financial benefits as well.

As research from McKinsey has shown, diverse companies have an edge when recruiting top talent, improving customer outcomes, and innovating in an ever-more competitive marketplace — but what often goes unsaid is that those benefits don’t come automatically. Diversity does not always lead to better teams and outcomes because it does not guarantee a workplace culture of inclusion and psychological safety. To achieve that, well-meaning companies must first address the elephant in the room: unconscious bias.

Identifying and overcoming unconscious bias in the workplace 

Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) is defined as any set of social stereotypes that a person might apply to a social group prejudicially and unintentionally. This stands in contrast to conscious or explicit bias, which is prejudicial ideas about groups of people that are openly acknowledged or believed. In either case, these biases can include both positive and negative stereotypes (the most extreme and damaging of which could include overt racism).

In all cases, biases like these can create dysfunctional and exclusive work cultures when left unexamined. While it may not be possible to completely eliminate unconscious bias, it can be managed and minimized so that teams can create a more inclusive environment that promotes mutual respect and innovation.

1. Aim to circumvent unconscious biases during the hiring process.

While HR departments and hiring managers are often responsible for recruiting and maintaining diverse and talented teams, there are still ways that prejudice and bias can sneak into the process — one of which is through the language of job postings. As one example, research from the University of Waterloo has shown that masculine-coded language like “competitive” and “determined” can sometimes deter qualified female talent from applying for certain roles.

To ensure listings don’t preclude certain applicants, scan your job listings through online tools like Textio or Gender Decoder. To prevent bias from entering into applicant evaluations, consider a “blind” resumé review process, standardized interview formats, and not asking about salary history as well. By being aware of how bias can enter into talent evaluations, companies can prevent these issues before they begin.

2. Identify existing unconscious bias within your teams and address it constructively.

Even in the best circumstances, diverse teams are liable to have conflict arising from different backgrounds and points of view. As the Harvard Business Review has noted, overcoming unconscious bias entirely can be difficult, but savvy managers can curtail it in helpful ways:

  • To ensure everyone has equal access to advance, meetings should only be scheduled at the office during hours everyone can attend — not at private clubs or during unusual hours.
  • During meetings, team leads can also be mindful of the flow of conversation by calling on quieter team members or putting controls in place so no one person dominates the entire meeting.
  • When making decisions about promotions or evaluations, focus on demonstrable achievements rather than on nebulous “potential,” which can be subject to our own subjectivity and prejudices.
  • Lastly, encourage team members to reflect on how their own experiences shape their views of the world in ways both positive and negative. In some cases, personal assessments from Harvard’s Project Implicit can be helpful in identifying biases as well.

3. Foster inclusivity through psychological safety.

Broadly defined, psychological safety is the belief or feeling that someone won’t be punished or shamed for speaking up or sharing their full self at work. While unconscious biases affect our lives in many ways, it isn’t always easy to identify exactly how they do so — nor is it always beneficial to point out each individual team member’s shortcomings. In addition to these other strategies, teams can overcome unconscious bias by focusing on psychological safety for the entire team.

For managers and team leads, this can be accomplished by enforcing simple rules that are often overlooked:

  • During meetings, set a policy of active listening and model it for other team members.
  • Encourage an open door policy for feedback or concerns, but make sure these meetings are taken the same way for all members and all issues. 
  • Finally, focus on positive accomplishments and avoid assigning individual blame to build team trust and cooperation.

Overcome unconscious bias for better communication and innovation

At Babbel for Business, we believe that diversity makes us stronger — particularly when we learn how to speak one another’s language (both literally and figuratively). While hiring for diversity and promoting different viewpoints is important, overcoming unconscious bias remains an obstacle for even the most well-meaning teams.

By promoting inclusivity and safety as primary values, companies can move beyond thinking in terms of diversity quotas. Instead, they can focus on creating fulfilling cultures that blend many voices and talents together — resulting in innovative work that makes the world a better place.


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