Unconscious Bias in the Government


Sometimes hiring decisions are impacted by things other than your skill set (sometimes?). The government in that respect is not different than other places. Beyond just preferential treatment, in some office environments (inside or outside the gov) it may feel like some cultures or ethnicities are treated better or differently. Sometimes office staff may feel uncomfortable because there have been missteps that were insensitive and made staff feel like assumptions were made about them due to their cultural heritage or background.

Through the last 30 years, having a discussion about these feelings or issues or incidents has been a rather flat issue. The message being: don’t have it.

However, now many government agencies have been trying to make this conversation more productive by recognizing that sometimes making assumptions based on culture, though still wrong, can happen accidentally. This has opened up a whole new world of recognizing that you (yourself) may be a culprit.

I took an unconscious bias course provided to my bureau and was surprised to find that I also had some accidental tendencies. The important skill the class taught me was to identify those mistakes, by first becoming open to the possibility that you’re making them in the first place. I thought this was a really different take on the issue, and I think it helped facilitate a lot of discussion with the group of staff in the class.

The goal of the class was to build the capacity of staff at all levels to recognize, address and manage the ways unconscious bias negatively influences the work culture. Business reasons the federal government is supporting this training include these stats:

  • In the 2020 Census, more than half of the children will be expected to be part of a minority race/ethnic group
  • In the 2060 Census, just 36% of all children will be a single-race non-Hispanic white, compared to 52% today

The training included identifying unconscious bias as well as micro behaviors which may send positive or negative messages.

The video below was shown as an example of unconscious bias. Of course, it’s meant to be funny and an extreme example, but brings to light that people do not realize how they sound or how the words they choose can cause offense.

The government has to make an effort to have these conversations with office staff on a regular basis. Just one class isn’t enough.

Sylvia Sosa is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Good introduction to this difficult challenge of unconscious bias. The impact of bias is real and lasting. We all have bias and are unaware of how they influence our decisions. The question is, what will each of us do about them? And what will our organizations do to support that? New video: Defeating Unconscious Bias: 5 Strategies offers real and measurable action steps to counter one’s own personal bias. Preview the video here http://www.unconsciousbias.info It’s already being used in government offices, schools and businesses.