For an employee anti-bias training program, look to Facebook

Without intention or realization, chances are leaders and employees alike possess biases that can be harmful to colleagues and patients.

Years of research have found various kinds of unconscious biases — including those pertaining to race, gender and class — affect our judgment and decisions at work, as well as how we interact with others, according to the Harvard Business Review.

These biases can produce costly consequences for organizations, such as hiring or promoting the wrong candidate and skipping over more deserving ones. They can also cross ethical boundaries, according to HBR. In healthcare, letting biases influence decisions regarding patient care could even yield fatal consequences.

Awareness of unconscious biases is not enough to suppress them, according to HBR. Organizations combat them through the careful development of employee training programs. These should help people accept that biases affect them, emphasize their concern about the consequences and see people are willing to replace biases with ideas that more closely align with their values, according to HBR.

Facebook is one company that has dedicated time and resources to training its employees in this regard. Cheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, recently wrote about the company's efforts, explaining that diversity is integral to the social networking site's mission of creating a more open and connected world. "One of the most important things we can do to promote diversity in the workplace is to correct for the unconscious bias that all of us have," she wrote.

Here are three elements of Facebook's employee program to manage unconscious bias, according to HBR.

1. Raise awareness and acceptance of the implications of bias. It is not always easy for people to accept that systematic errors, such as unconscious biases, affect their decisions. Many recognize bias in others, but don't think they have any themselves. Training programs that raise awareness that bias exists within all of us — even smart, well-intentioned people — helps people accept the fact that they may have demonstrated discrimination or prejudice against others in the past.

2. Stress the negative consequences of bias. Research shows that when we realize our behavior has a negative impact on others, we become more concerned with correcting our actions so they don't generate the same bad outcomes or costs to others in the future, according to HBR.

3. Discuss strategies that eliminate unconscious bias and how to implement them. Research has identified only a handful of successful interventions that can be demonstrated during training programs to reduce unconscious bias. In one study, researchers found it is possible to at least temporarily reduce unconscious bias by showing people pictures of iconic individuals who do not adhere to common stereotypes. For instance, study participants viewed photos of black icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and white criminals, such as serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

Another effective approach for reducing unconscious racial bias was identified in studies where people listened to stories told in second person in which a white attacker attempted to hurt them and a black man rescued them. A longer, more detailed version of the story created stronger emotional reactions to both characters among study participants, and was particularly effective at reducing bias. While these efforts were effective for reducing unconscious bias in the short term, there is evidence the effects of such interventions can be long lasting, according to HBR.

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