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Bias is an inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group. So, unconscious biases are unconscious feelings that we have towards other people. These are instinctive feelings that play a strong part in influencing our judgements away from being balanced or even-handed.
Most bias stereotypes do not come from a place of bad intent. They are just a deep-seated, unconscious stereotype that has been formed in our brains through years of different influences that we often have had no control over. We instinctively categorise people based on criteria such as age, gender, race, disabilities, cultural background, personality, job title, education, experience, similarities or socio-economic position.
Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, can lead to instinctive assumptions, for example that a nurse must be a woman or an engineer must be a man, that someone in their 20s is too young to be a senior manager or that someone in their 70s cannot work in a full-time job.
How unconscious bias affects our decision-making
As humans, our decision-making process is heavily influenced by our biases – some conscious, some unconscious. A lot of our decisions are actually driven by unconscious bias, by how we consider something to be safe and acceptable to us.
Biases affect us and our decision-making processes in a number of different ways:
- Our Perception – This is how we see other people and perceive reality.
- Our Attitude – This is how we react towards certain people.
- Our Behaviours – This is how responsive or friendly we are towards certain people.
- Our Attention – This is which aspects of a person we pay most attention to.
- Our Listening Skills – This is how much or how little we actively listen to what certain people say, or how much or how little we ask certain people for their opinions.
- Our Micro-affirmations – This is how much or how little we empathise with others or acknowledge another person’s value.
If you act on your gut instincts, kneejerk reactions or assumptions, there is a chance that you are opening yourself up to unconscious bias.
Causes of unconscious bias
People are naturally biased. Even when we intend to be completely fair, our brains have a hard time remaining impartial. In many cases, biases form because of the human brain’s tendency to categorise new people and new information. To learn quickly, the brain connects new people or ideas to past experiences.
Our brains have a natural tendency to look for patterns and associations in order to make sense of a very complicated world. This categorising saves our brain the time and effort of absorbing and processing information.
Unfortunately, the same process can also affect our behaviour in undesirable ways; categorising people can lead us to make untrue assumptions about them which make us treat them differently.
Our biases are also influenced by our:
- Personal experiences.
- Media influences.
- Societal stereotypes.
- Cultural context.
Understanding the importance of diversity in the workplace
Diversity in the workplace means that an organisation employs a wide range of diverse individuals with different characteristics, and not only those characteristics that are protected by law. It gives organisations access to a greater range of talent. Organisations who have greater workplace diversity outperform their competitors, increase employee engagement, retain staff for longer and achieve higher productivity.
Diversity in the workplace creates a more accepting culture that has a strong positive effect on individuals and connects everyone in the organisation. Building such a culture is something that most organisations are striving to achieve. Workplace diversity is not a politically correct fad, it is a serious competitive advantage with immediate and tangible benefits. It ensures a variety of different perspectives and a variety of different skills and experiences.
In addition to having a variety of different perspectives from people with different backgrounds, the exposure to such a variety of people leads to increased creativity and innovation. When you put together people who see the same thing in different ways, you are more likely to get a melting pot of fresh, new ideas, that improves the creativity and innovation of your workforce and your organisation.
Considering the effects of unconscious bias
The link between workplace diversity and employee engagement is pretty straightforward; when employees feel included, they are more engaged. Employees who experience bias and prejudice often actively disengage and reduce their contributions.
Over time, feelings of isolation, alienation and suppression can take a toll on the person. Implicit bias, whether perceived or real, also affects the organisation’s performance.
Workplace bias impacts, for example:
- The available talent pool.
- Employee retention.
- Employee engagement.
- Employees not realising their full potential.
- Workplace interpersonal relationships.
- Organisational reputation.
- Customer and service user relationships.
- Potential for grievances.
- Potential for discrimination.
- Potential for employment tribunals.
How to overcome your own bias
Your explicit belief might be that everyone is equal, but you may find yourself reacting inconsistently by having subconscious reactions to people or groups of people in various situations. You can bring your implicit attitudes more in line with your explicit ones by first acknowledging that you have them – everyone does.
Next, identify situations in which your implicit biases impact your behaviour. Make a list for yourself and be as specific as you can, for example do you instinctively buy blue for a boy and pink for a girl? Do you adjust your posture or walking speed when you walk past a group of teenagers on the street? Do you assume an elderly relative won’t be interested in the latest smartphone?
Make an effort to be friendlier when interacting with people you perceive as different. Behaviour influences thoughts. If you act friendlier toward other people, over time you will feel more comfortable with them. Perhaps there is a neighbour that you never talk to because they are older, or you could spend time to get to know work colleagues better on a personal level. Increased face-to-face contact with people who seem different from you on the surface undermines implicit bias.
Identifying, challenging and overcoming unconscious bias
Broadening your viewpoint and educating others is key to addressing unconscious biases. When taking any decisions be sure to step back and ask:
- What biases might I have?
- What impact does this have on myself and others?
- What will I do about this?
- Bias on the surface is not inherently good or bad. In the simplest of terms, our biases are our preferences. We all like to identify as good, so we think bias is inherently negative and only bad people have it. When challenged, people often put up barriers saying, “I’m a good person. I try to treat people fairly” and get defensive.
- If we can recognise that we all have bias, we can reconcile the two opposing ideas that we can have bias and still be a good person; they can coexist. That is what will help us to make progress.
- Our goal should not necessarily be to change people’s preferences. It should be to ensure that they are thinking about the impact that those preferences may be having on others so that everyone feels valued and respected.
- Highlighting any language or actions that show unconscious bias is key to reducing its impact. It isn’t easy to correct people, but it needs to be done to raise awareness of the issue. Respectfully challenge others’ behaviours, calling out bias when you see it. If you identify someone who may be making a decision with potential bias, engage them in a constructive conversation to identify any possible biases in their decision.
Tackling unconscious bias can be a daunting task. Pinning down and solving an “invisible” problem will always be a steep learning curve for any organisation.
Once you have identified where you or your organisation may be acting on unconscious bias, there are a series of simple steps to take to tackle the issue. Start with policies and procedures that could harbour institutional biases.
- Consider whether your recruitment process is fair; review and evaluate every stage.
- Review and evaluate all workplace policies and procedures to test for bias and consult with your employees; their perspective can be invaluable. Your workplace policies and practices should make clear what counts as unacceptable behaviour at work, and that includes biased actions.
- Your performance management and review procedures; how objective is your assessment criteria? Use a detailed rating scale that is consistent for all employees, and always put friendships and personal feelings towards someone aside.
- Check that your workplace dress code, if you have one, does not discriminate against any protected characteristics.
- Encourage all employees, irrespective of level, to highlight any instances of bias they witness; have a mechanism for flagging any issues that need addressing.
- Encourage everyone to discuss biases in the workplace and to have a more inclusive attitude.
Effecting change within organisations
Senior management should be role models for inclusive behaviour and lead by example. It can begin with establishing or reviewing core values. Implementing a set of values that everyone in the organisation feels committed to is an effective way of counteracting unconscious bias. Encouraging everyone to refresh their knowledge of the values and how they are “lived” in the workplace will help develop and maintain an inclusive environment.
Invest in training – everyone should participate in unconscious bias training, especially supervisors and managers. It is vital that everyone is aware of implicit attitudes and when these are impacting on the workplace. Insightful training is fundamental to making this clear and also helps people see the importance of their role in shaping your inclusive workplace culture and how they can play a role in helping to eradicate bias in the workplace.
Become aware of the impact that biases may have on decision-making within the organisation and openly discuss strategies that ensure that unconscious biases are not impeding efforts towards developing an inclusive and diverse workplace.
Equality and diversity
Raising awareness of unconscious biases is now widely considered a critical aspect of equality and diversity. An organisation’s equality and diversity policy is a written statement which outlines an organisation’s commitment to promoting inclusion within the workplace.
Although they differ from business to business, an organisation’s equality and diversity policy will generally cover details on employee rights, with links to specific pieces of legislation which safeguard their staff from discrimination, bullying and harassment. It is important to note that the equality and diversity policy applies to employees, as much as it does to the employer; both can be held accountable if these standards are not met.
A workplace promoting equality, diversity, inclusion and challenging bias can help:
- Make it more successful.
- Keep employees happy and motivated.
- Prevent serious or legal issues arising, such as bullying, harassment and discrimination.
- To better serve a diverse range of customers and service users.
- Improve ideas and problem-solving.
- Attract and keep talented employees.
Equality in the workplace means equal opportunities and fairness for employees and job applicants. Diversity is the range of people in your workforce. This might mean people of different ages, genders, religions, ethnicities, skin colours, accents, socio-economic backgrounds, educational backgrounds, people with disabilities, people of different height, weight, hair and eye colour etc. It also means valuing those differences. An inclusive workplace means everyone feels valued at work.