March 4, 2021

Confronting Implicit Bias

Human behavior is driven by unconscious biases. EDC is embarking on a new effort to help staff confront these deeply held ideas.

Implicit bias plays a significant role in most of the choices we make every day. No matter how much we think we are in control of our decisions, our implicit biases—that combination of beliefs and experiences that shape how we see the world—often drive the actions we take.

And in a business setting, those unconscious biases have a real bottom-line impact. Research has shown that implicit bias determines which proposals get funded and who gets hired.

In 2018, EDC embarked on a long-term initiative to identify and mitigate the negative impact of implicit bias in the organization’s business practices by rolling out a voluntary training for all staff. Now, three years into the effort, the program is changing how people work.

Deirdre Jennings-Holton, a senior international recruiting manager and co-chair of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Recruiting and Hiring Subcommittee, researched and helped develop EDC’s five-month long program called “Understanding and Mitigating Implicit Bias.” She says that the depth of the training—participants take an implicit bias test, participate in virtual small group discussions, complete homework assignments, practice an assortment of mitigation techniques, and study the neuroscience of bias—sets EDC’s effort apart from other organizations.

“Our approach is focused on achieving behavior change through neuroscience,” Jennings-Holton says. “The goal of this program is to raise awareness and mitigate the negative impact of implicit bias, and to do that, you need a program that lasts more than a few hours or a few days.”

Jennings-Holton has a unique perspective on the program, as she also participated in the first implementation of the training in 2018—a train-the-trainer cohort that included members of EDC’s senior leadership. She describes it as “transformative.”

“Whatever your experiences, people think of you as your descriptor first—as Black, as homeless, as gay, as trans,” says Jennings-Holton. “The training helped me ask, ‘What do we have in common?’ and to see each other as a person first. Doing that helps you understand those other dimensions that are different.”

But the training did more than just change her perspective; it changed how she works with colleagues to recruit, interview, and hire new staff, too.

One issue she identifies is the tendency for hiring teams to hire a candidate who seems like a “good fit” for the organization without critically examining how their own implicit biases may be influencing their preferences. The result? Qualified candidates who might bring new perspectives and skills to the organization could be overlooked.

After completing the implicit bias training, Jennings-Holton began working with hiring teams to better identify the qualities and competencies essential to the open position prior to the interview. The goal was to mitigate the opportunities for bias to enter into the evaluation. She also worked with Human Resources to develop new tools to help hiring managers mitigate implicit biases in their search for new talent.

“At the end of the day, we want to make a decision based on something that’s not so subjective as ‘fit,’” Jennings-Holton says. “This training really grounded my thinking about how to create processes and systems to weed out that bias.”

This type of behavioral change is just what CEO David Offensend wants to see. The training is all about building a more inclusive, more representative organization.

“I want us to take on things that will have tangible outcomes and benefits, so that every year, we can show progress toward our diversity and inclusion goals,” says Offensend, who also participated in the initial 2018 training.

Offensend, who serves as EDC’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, situates this initiative within a larger effort to foster growth and development. The organization has also launched a mentorship program to promote staff retention, as well as supervisor trainings to improve business practices.

“The implicit bias training is the highest profile activity—and the one that has gotten the most traction among staff—but it’s not the only thing we are doing,” says Offensend.

Not only is it high-profile, but it’s popular, too: 132 staff have completed either face-to-face or virtual versions of the training, and another 60 will soon begin the program.

Camille Lemieux, an education researcher and co-chair of the EDI Committee, participated in the second phase of the implicit bias training in October 2019. She says she took the training because she was interested in learning what her implicit biases were and how to mitigate them.

The training helped Lemieux become a better listener, a skill that she applies to her interactions with EDC colleagues, as well as clients and partners. It has also made her more patient with people who see issues of race, equity, and social justice differently than she does. She might not agree with their viewpoints, but she says that she is more likely to try to understand their perspectives than she was before.

“Everyone is at a different point in their journey to becoming anti-racist, and I realized that I can exercise more compassion and understanding for those who are at the beginning of their journey,” Lemieux says.

Having incorporated some new skills into her own practice, Lemieux believes that the training is important for everyone—regardless of job title or responsibility.

“There’s no world where there are no biases,” says Lemieux. “And the more we are aware of our biases and have strategies to mitigate and lessen those biases, the more we can interact in a more equitable way.”