Change comes from within

Unconscious bias: Why subconscious prejudices are the real enemies of diversity

Diversity and Inclusion Culture Culture Nov 25, 2021

“It was liberating for me – but it was difficult too,” says Frank Janßen. The 51-year-old Research and Development Manager had been in a heterosexual relationship for a long time, and he has a 17-year-old daughter. Twelve years ago he came out as gay, including to his team. “Hiding this part of my life at work was not an option for me.” While chatting with colleagues, Frank quickly realized that many people decide otherwise in a similar situation for fear of prejudice and rejection. He set up a closed group in the company’s internal Yammer network for LGBTQ colleagues to share their experiences – the group is now open and active internationally. “Even colleagues from Malaysia are in it. For them, the group is a place where they can finally be open,” says Frank, adding that – not unexpectedly – overt discrimination is one of the many things discussed in the group. An even greater challenge, however, especially in team cooperation, is what’s known as “unconscious bias” – that is, the subconscious bias people have toward those who are different than themselves, whether it be because of where they come from, their religious beliefs, their physical or mental disabilities, or their sexual orientation. “If someone faces open rejection, they can go on the offensive, presenting and illustrating counter arguments,” says Frank. “That doesn’t work if the person discriminating isn’t aware of their prejudices.”

Frank Janßen, Senior Manager, International R&D, Laundry & Home Care


There are still many things that we don’t talk about or don’t talk about openly enough. But the developments over the last few years show that we’re on the right track.

Most international corporations now understand that diversity provides a basis – if not a prerequisite – for creativity, innovation and, ultimately, economic success. The issue is often top of the list of things people are talking about, especially since movements such as Black Lives Matter in the USA or the fight against the New Right in Europe have intensified social discourse. However, there is often a lack of effective action when it comes to everyday life in a company. An inclusive culture must do more than condemn open discrimination: It must create an environment in which everyone feels that they are fully accepted and being treated fairly. This is often easier said than done.

How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias | Valerie Alexander | TEDxPasadena - Thumbnail

This is because acting according to subconscious prejudices is inherent to human biology. The brain must process information quickly in order to be able to react immediately in case of danger. This means that, in many situations, it often starts processing automatically and supplements the information it lacks on its own. However, this is often wrong, especially when it comes to social contact. For example, studies have shown that we often regard people who conform to conventional beauty standards as more competent – even if there is no factual reason to do so.

This mental process can prove to be a daily challenge, especially in international teams. Even those who consider themselves unbiased and do not consciously exclude others often subconsciously act on the basis of deeply entrenched prejudices.

Employees brainstorming together in front of a flipchart

Questioning one's own internal structures helps with teamwork.

Angela Curley, who works as Diversity & Inclusion Manager at Henkel in Stamford, USA, says that unconscious bias can be a disruptive factor in creating productive and energized work teams. It impacts perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. The challenge is when it is hidden under the surface. It is important to create a sense of belonging particularly when new colleagues join a team. She adds, “Respect is the most important thing. Everyone has their own story – I can only learn about myself if I listen to and open myself up to the experiences of others.” The new social discourse has already brought about a lot of change in society but implementing this change in a company requires perseverance, as well as strong leaders who lead by example and are committed to a culture of value. “This is not about condemning behavior, but about sharing experiences and learning together,” says Angela. Companies that take their commitment to diversity seriously must therefore address this issue on a daily basis.

What types of unconscious bias are there?

Henkel’s global Diversity & Inclusion team works with the Henkel Diversity Network to create and foster a culture based on diversity and respect in all departments and regions.

In 2020, the company launched an initiative to throw light on “unconscious bias” and demonstrate ways of dealing with it. Using explanatory videos and a comprehensive “Hack Your Bias” eLearning program, this initiative aims to teach employees around the world how to identify and counteract subconscious thought processes. The different modules address the different types of biases and how they can affect daily cooperation. This has led to the development of an interactive workshop format through which participants are made aware of the effects of unconscious bias in teamwork.

Even artificial intelligence makes biased decisions

Artificial intelligence has already found its way into numerous areas that are crucial to our private and professional daily lives. Algorithms are sets of rules to follow and can help automate processes, solve complex tasks, or make decisions. Their big advantage is supposed to be that they can make completely fact-based and unbiased decisions. Machines, however, learn from people using the data that is made available to them. This means that if people have made decisions based on prejudice in the past – such as which candidate is the best fit for a job vacancy – machines will repeat these patterns and, in the worst-case scenario, institutionalize them.

Building on this program, an “Inclusion Upskilling” initiative was launched in 2021 to give employees an understanding of why diversity and inclusion are important, and provide them with practical tips and tools to contribute to a culture of value at Henkel. For example, the Inclusion Upskilling program offers employees valuable insights and resources for identifying hidden obstacles to including all colleagues and for becoming a driver of diversity and inclusion themselves.

For Frank Janßen, this is another step in the right direction: “There are still many things that we don’t talk about or don’t talk about openly enough. But the developments over the last few years show that we’re on the right track. Many things have already changed; we’ve become more open with each other. A major factor in this is our management’s clear commitment to diversity and inclusion, which has been communicated over and over again. I hope we can continue to build on this in the next few years.”

Three questions for ...


... Helen Kalcevic,
Head of Corporate Audit and
Diversity & Inclusion Change Leader

What is your motivation for driving Diversity & Inclusion within the company?

As a full-hearted believer in the power of diversity, I feel honored and empowered as one of Henkel’s Diversity & Inclusion Change Leaders to shape the future I want to live and work in. I am happy to see that we are tackling unconscious biases so actively; a key enabler to embracing inclusion and thus unleashing the power of our diversity.

What have you learned so far?

I definitely had my moment of truth when first addressing my own biases: I did not feel comfortable or “represented” with what seems to be unconsciously embedded in my thinking patterns. But, whether we like it or not, we must admit that each and every one has biases, allowing them to surface is the only way to be able to deal with them and make sure they do not impact our decisions or behavior.

What goals have you set for yourselves with the Henkel Diversity Network?

Awareness is the most important enabler for dealing with our biases. In some functions, we have thus initiated activation workshops that build on the existing Henkel programs and aim at intensifying one’s understanding of unconscious biases in the own work and team context. This will help teams to understand the impact of biases within their organization, and detect and uncover biases in decision-making processes.