Biases in the Workplace

World Ranking

Let experiment with how you think about diversity. For this experiment, you can think of “diversity” as randomly talking to two people in these countries below and asking their ethnicity and the odds of getting different answers.

Rank the countries below in order of how diverse you perceive them to be.

  1. China
  2. United States
  3. Uganda
  4. Canada
  5. Japan

This exercise suggest two things: First, we consider the US is a melting pot but it’s more “chunky stew” than “creamy soup.” Second, we have a bias to rank an item higher on a list if it’s more familiar to us. So if you know more about Canada than you do about Uganda you will likely rank it higher.

Note: How people self-identify does change over time and the point of this discussion is not whether ethnic diversity is better or worse for a country.

Below is a map ranking countries in order of diversity based on a list of countries ranked by ethnic and cultural diversity level. Orange countries are more diverse and blue countries are less.

What about your own city?

Explore the map below by dragging around to different areas.

The Racial Dot Map: https://demographics.virginia.edu/DotMap/index.html

Zooming into the Washington, DC metropolitan area—a place where I reside and consider to be ethnically diverse, you start to see clear geographic clustering. There are of course historical and economic context to this maps, but that is outside the scope of this discussion. There is, however, an element of diversity which is self-imposed: we tend to stick with what we know and what are comfortable with. We, the human race, have a bias for it. We tend to cluster in communities of our own for safety. In the modern world, however, that bias can be both beneficial and detrimental.

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Are We Biased?

bias [bahy-uh s]: noun
A particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned.

In, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional and System 2 is slower, mindful, and more logical. The first system keeps you alive and moving. The second helps us learn and make decisions. You have the monkey brain whose job it is to react, not think, and the turtle brain whose job it analyze and reflect.


Say you are on safari and you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with a lion. You will either:

  1. Jump back in your vehicle!
  2. Slow down and consider what you know about lions. Perhaps he has had a bad day. Maybe he has a thorn in his paw. Maybe he needs a hug.

In this case, listen to that first brain. It will keep you alive. But, what about the rest of the time when you are not in danger? What about when you are hiring a candidate? We cannot always trust our intuitions and we need to find balance and self awareness when we use either system.

The good news is that we have a choice. We can choose to "go with our gut", or we can choose to slow down and analyse. In environments like the office, it is important to know what biases you are prone to and keep them in check. For instance, I don’t think anyone would voluntarily say they were biased when choosing a candidate for a position, but how many people say they "went with their gut" or "it was just something about them". Is that "something" a characteristic we should trust?

So What Can Companies Do?

What can start as an innocent preference for your friends can lead to exclusion and team break down. We need to hold ourselves accountable and not be offended when we are told to mix it up. Below are some ideas to consider:

  • Learn about your own biases and make bias awareness part of your company culture. Make it clear that having tendencies and biases are NOT an excuse to continue poor business and hiring practices.
  • Find other ways to financially incentivize employees than hiring their “friends”.
  • Avoid “self organizing groups” that do not consider diversity or rotation.
  • Ensure teammates can pronounce everyone on the team's name and know something about each other.
  • Choose someone for a project or a leadership role that you don't see everyday. Leadership can be something as simple as leading a meeting agenda.
  • If you are the one regularly chosen to lead, be "that guy" and hand it off to someone else.
  • Mentor each other not just as senior-to-junior, but also skill-to-skill, and culture-to-culture.
  • Ask someone to lunch...just because. People go to lunch with the same group over and over. This is particularly bad if you are a leader walking out the door with members of the same group. Mix it up.
  • Say something. Maybe it’s something as simple as “that action will weaken the diversity on this team.”

Perception is reality and our quick-brain "gut reactions" are based on preceptions. The next time you make leadership or hiring decision, remember that map of DC. Think about the natural divisions that already exist and make a conscious decision to do something different. By simply mixing things up we can change the perception of what our industries look like. If we stop looking to recruiters to solve the diversity problem and instead look at ourselves and our company cultures, we will start to see change in the people we attract. It is the job of every employee to reach out and change the diversity numbers. It is everyone's responsibility to not fall victim to our biases.

You can learn more about bias and company training at the links below: