IBIS shares news, insight and best practices about pressing Diversity & Inclusion and Unconscious Bias topics in today’s workplace.

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How to Minimize Unconscious Bias in Career Development


Unconscious bias has unquestionably played a role in your career development.

Maybe it was affinity bias; a manager, mentor or colleague responded positively to you because you two had something in common.

Your success might have had something to do with attention bias; someone with influence happened to notice certain behaviors or contributions of yours that they could just as easily have overlooked.

Maybe you benefitted from association bias, in which some aspect of your identity generated positive feelings in another person.

Don’t get the wrong idea: you deserved the opportunities that came your way. But were there others who may have been equally qualified, but didn’t trigger the same unconscious biases?

There were also probably times when a decision-maker’s unconscious bias did not work in your favor- you just didn’t “click,” or they didn’t value what you did or said, or they assumed you weren’t able to perform a task and you never got a chance to show them otherwise.

How did missing out on that opportunity make you feel?

Did it impact your satisfaction and engagement with the job?

Did it seem unfair and make you feel frustrated?

The reality is that your unconscious bias may be creating unequal access to opportunities for the people who work with and for you.

In your role, there are numerous situations in which your perceptions and actions can have significant impact- positive or negative- on someone’s performance and career development opportunities, in daily conversations, periodic check-ins, annual reviews, assignments to special projects, promotions, succession planning, and so on.

Are you inadvertently excluding some employees by focusing on others who are more outspoken and visible? If so, that’s a type of attention bias.

Do you ever select employees with whom you feel more comfortable, and give fewer opportunities to those who are “different”? This could be categorized as affinity bias.

You might make assumptions about an employee because of an aspect of their identity. This is known as association bias.

Biases are pervasive in most societies and often people are unaware of their impact.

The challenge is to become conscious of these hidden biases, make access to opportunities more equal, and create a culture of inclusion.

One way to minimize unconscious bias in promotional opportunities is to focus on the competencies needed for the position. Whether the competencies are influence, vision development, collaboration, critical thinking, or something else entirely, make sure that you have articulated the competencies that are needed for the job, and ensure that you are assessing the individual based on that framework.

Preferring a particular leadership style may be a form of:

  • affinity bias (preferring styles similar to your own)
  • attention bias (overly focusing on a single aspect of effective leadership to the exclusion of others), or
  • association bias (preferring styles similar to leaders you know)

As you know, career development isn’t just a once-a-year performance review conversation. It’s an ongoing process of checking in with employees, having frequent conversations with them about their current work, and identifying ways to match their interests with suitable opportunities now and in the near or distant future.

Whether you’re engaging in a quick chat with an employee, conducting an annual review, deciding who to select for an assignment, or doing succession planning for the future of your organization, using IBIS’ FLEX model can help you minimize bias. This will position you to develop and retain the best talent, connect better with customers and clients, and build a workforce for the future.

Focus within: become aware of your own actions and reactions and explore them. Notice what types of personality/leadership styles you tend to like or dislike and ask yourself why. Notice if you make (unconscious) assumptions about people based on their age, appearance, family status, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Take the free online Implicit Association Test (IAT) offered through a Harvard University website; developed by 3 renowned social psychology experts, it can help you learn more about your own unconscious biases and associations.

Learn About Others: Observe when other people react differently from you, and find out why. Try to put yourself in other people’s shoes. What might be influencing their thoughts, feelings and actions? Ask people about their backgrounds, interests, and goals. Learn more about different cultures, their behavioral norms, and varying styles of leadership. Observe the talents and competencies of those who do not hold recognized positions of leadership or differ from the predominant leadership style.

Engage in conversation: Be curious, open-minded, and respectful. Have regular conversations—with your direct reports and your manager—about goals and development opportunities. Ask direct reports/colleagues what impact your actions and behaviors are having on them. Ask direct reports/colleagues what they need to be most effective at their jobs.

eXpand the options. Use competencies—not personality, leadership style or rigid prerequisites—to assess candidates. Look for gaps in current leadership or teams and proactively seek out diverse candidates—by thinking style, experience, or demographics. Keep a list of all candidates at the ready, and refer to it each time before you make a decision, whether it’s a job assignment, a promotion, or any other career development opportunity. Consider utilizing formal, structured programs (can be within or across departments as well as demographics):

  • Mentoring – appointed advisors meet with advisees on regular basis
  • Sponsorship –sponsors invite/nominate the individuals they sponsor to participate in career development opportunities
  • Advocacy – high-level advocates are paired with high-potential employees, and actively seek to influence their promotion opportunities

All these career development strategies can help you create a workplace of inclusion that can lead to great employee engagement which in return leads to strong business results.