Unconscious bias in the workplace

Unconscious bias is an important yet controversial business topic – where are we and what’s the way forward?

Diverse team of people standing in a row


What is unconscious bias?

Human beings have evolved to make rapid judgements in potentially life-threatening situations. We take cues from our environment and make assumptions about how to react – often without even being aware that we’re doing it.

But in a modern context, these judgements and reactions can lead us to treat others unfairly. There are many forms of unconscious bias and in a workplace setting, our assumptions can directly affect people’s career paths and progression.

Unconscious bias plays a role both in the recruitment of new people and the way that we interact with our colleagues at work.

What are the types of unconscious bias in the workplace?

The types of bias that can have the most negative effects include:

  • Affinity Bias – Humans have a tendency to gravitate toward people similar to themselves. That could mean that you will prefer to hire or promote someone of the same race, gender, age, or educational background as you.
  • Ageism – we can unconsciously discriminate against people of both young and old ages, making unfounded assumptions about their ability to perform a job.
  • Attribution Bias – we have a tendency to attribute reasons for why people behave as they do, which are often baseless – for example, someone who arrives late to a meeting is ‘lazy’. This can cloud our judgement and lead us to treat people unfairly.
  • Confirmation Bias – where we look for or favour information that confirms beliefs we already hold. If you believe that left-handed people are creative, you will focus on people that match this stereotype and disregard the many non-creative left-handers.
  • Gender Bias – many roles are historically gender biased such as nursing or construction work. It’s common to make assumptions about job fit based on gender, and even the wording of job adverts can favour one gender over another.

How does unconscious bias affect the working environment?

Unconscious biases can seriously limit the efforts made by companies to become more diverse and inclusive.

If every manager is unconsciously favouring those who are most similar to them, or making unfair assumptions about colleagues who differ, you will end up with a homogeneous workforce. Yet research has repeatedly proven that diverse teams are the most successful.

The Black Lives Matter movement has been a catalyst for employers to reinforce their commitment to diversity, equality and eliminating discrimination.

How should organisations tackle unconscious bias?

It’s in tackling unconscious bias that the controversy begins. Unconscious bias tests and training have become prevalent in recent years, but there is much debate about whether these are effective.

While it is important for people to be aware that these biases exist, a one-off training session is unlikely to profoundly change their behaviour. The Civil Service famously dropped its unconscious bias training in 2020. Various conclusions were drawn after widespread unconscious bias training failed to deliver any notable change in the diversity of senior management in large organisations.

In fact, such training can have the opposite effect, as Diana Parkes, founder of Women’s Sat Nav to Success, explained: “Many men, in particular, feel alienated and threatened. This is not a formula for change.”

Tackling bias at grass-roots level

Dropping unconscious bias training entirely without any replacement is not the way forward, however. Experts argue that unconscious bias programmes can be a first step in raising awareness.

Better, though, is to avoid biases coming into play at all. A crucial step is to change recruitment processes so that true diversity is enabled at every level.

As an example, hiring managers could be asked to shortlist candidates purely on the facts from their CVs – with name, age, address and other personal information removed. Job adverts should also be checked for language bias.

Driving Diversity

Organisations should also embrace ‘reverse’ mentoring – particularly for leaders to learn from under-represented groups about how they view the workplace and their career experiences. Only through education, awareness and real life experience can we hope to truly drive equality at work.

By actively encouraging and embracing fairer recruitment and progression practices, diversity will increase. A more inclusive workplace gives people more experience of working with others from a wide range of backgrounds and therefore, better recognition that stereotyping and judgements are unrealistic and unfair.

This is the most effective route to giving everyone an equal chance of career success.

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