You don’t know what you don’t know: How our unconscious minds undermine the workplace

When YouTube launched their video upload app for iOS, between 5 and 10 percent of videos uploaded by users were upside-down. Were people shooting videos incorrectly? No. Our early design was the problem. It was designed for right-handed users, but phones are usually rotated 180 degrees when held in left hands. Without realizing it, we’d created an app that worked best for our almost exclusively right-handed developer team.

This is just one example of how unconscious biases influence our actions every day, even when—by definition—we don’t notice them. These biases are shaped by our experiences and by cultural norms, and allow us to filter information and make quick decisions. We’ve evolved to trust our guts. But sometimes these mental shortcuts can lead us astray, especially when they cause us to misjudge people. In the workplace, for example, the halo effect can cause us to inflate performance ratings or in-group bias can lead us to overlook great talent.

Combatting our unconscious biases is hard, because they don’t feel wrong; they feel right. But it’s necessary to fight against bias in order to create a work environment that supports and encourages diverse perspectives and people. Not only is that the right thing to do, but without a diverse workforce, there’s a pretty good chance that our products—just like that early YouTube app—won’t work for everyone. That means we need to make the unconscious, conscious.

The first step is education; we need to help people identify and understand their biases so that they can start to combat them. So we developed a workshop, Unconscious Bias @ Work, in which more than 26,000 Googlers have taken part. And it’s made an impact: Participants were significantly more aware, had greater understanding, and were more motivated to overcome bias.

In addition to our workshop, we’re partnering with organizations like the Clayman Institute and the Ada Initiative to further research and awareness. We’re also taking action to ensure that the decisions we make at work—from promoting employees to marketing products—are objective and fair. Here are four ways we're working to reduce the influence of bias:

  • Gather facts. It’s hard to know you’re improving if you’re not measuring. We collect data on things like gender representation in our doodles and at our conferences.
  • Create a structure for making decisions. Define clear criteria to evaluate the merits of each option, and use them consistently. Using the same standards to evaluate all options can reduce bias. This is why we use structured interviews in hiring, applying the same selection and evaluation methods for all.
  • Be mindful of subtle cues. Who’s included and who’s excluded? In 2013, Googlers pointed out that of the dozens of conference rooms named after famous scientists, only a few were female. Was this our vision for the future? No. So we changed Ferdinand von Zeppelin to Florence Nightingale—along with many others—to create more balanced representation. Seemingly small changes can have big effects.
  • Foster awareness. Hold yourself—and your colleagues—accountable. We’re encouraging Googlers to call out bias. For example, we share a “bias busting checklist” at performance reviews, encouraging managers to examine their own biases and call out those of others.

As we shared back in May, we’re not where we should be when it comes to diversity. But in order to get there, we need to have this conversation. We have to figure out where our biases lie, and we have to combat them. Tackling unconscious bias at work is just one piece of making Google a diverse workplace, but it’s absolutely essential if we’re going to live up to our promise to build technology that makes life better for as many people as possible.