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Unconscious Bias in the Retail World

Last week, in our highlights of the 49th ICSC U.S. Law Conference, we touched on Dr. Mahzarin R. Banaji’s keynote presentation, where she discussed unconscious bias and how it affects everyone. She has also co-authored a book entitled Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People discussing these issues. Unconscious biases are thoughts and actions formed by our brains creating shortcuts to process the countless pieces of information we encounter daily and are informed by media, news, societal norms, and our experience. Our biases may not even be self-serving. But we all have these biases, and because everyone has them, our employees, customers, and companies will all experience them as well.

Unconscious bias, left unchecked, can lead companies to be less diverse, to foster less inclusive environments, and can create significant barriers to employees and customers. It can also lead to dangerous situations, like when female doctors of color are pushed aside for care by less qualified, white men on flights. Many high-profile retail incidents have also occurred in recent years, largely attributed to unconscious biases. In light of these issues, all companies are encouraged to think about and address unconscious bias.

So how does a company start working on improving the environment, knowing these biases exist? Companies have taken a variety of approaches to combatting unconscious bias. Some companies, like Starbucks and Sephora have instituted mandatory training for all employees to try and address issues of unconscious bias following incidents in their stores. Other experts, including Dr. Banaji, however, encourage companies to engage in voluntary, not mandatory, sessions to have these discussions. Voluntary sessions, they argue, bring together people willing to engage and learn, as opposed to required trainings that may produce resentful or hostile participants who are not interested in engaging in meaningful discussion on these issues.

Once in these sessions, there are a variety of ways to approach these issues. For example, at my office we recently had a voluntary event where attendees took an Implicit Association Test from Harvard’s Project Implicit and then broke into small group discussions to talk about our own unconscious biases. Some large companies are even breaking into the virtual reality world to help employees learn more empathy and recognize their own biases. No matter what approach you take, starting the conversation is of vital importance to creating a more inclusive environment for your company and your customers.

Related topics: Retail