Unconscious bias describes a set of inherent belief systems about an individual or group of people, which the holder themselves is oblivious to or unaware of their influence on their actions and decision making.
Everyone is biased. Whether we realise it or not, our thoughts and feelings towards everyone and everything are influenced by our backgrounds, our experiences, our teachings and even the media we consume.
For the most part, subtle biases tend not to cause harm – they have been developed as an evolutionary response to our external environment and means of survival. However, it is when they lead us to favour or discriminate against certain people or groups that biases become problematic and harmful.
Indeed, it is the understanding that these particular biases are implicit that is the root of the issue, with the unconscious factor essentially giving people approval to be racist, homophobic or sexist.
Such an attitude towards these biases offers an explanation as to why, despite increased work and awareness to raise equity and equality amongst marginalised groups, society can still look very unfair.
Surely, then, we should just stop excusing bias as ‘unconscious’ and simply call it out for what it is – unacceptable bias?!
Why is bias a problem for the workplace?
Bias can have a big impact on decisions made at work, especially when it comes to recruitment, reward and performance management.
According to studies, job applicants with white sounding names are 74% more likely to receive a positive response than applicants with names associated with ethnic minorities.
Stereotypes surrounding mothers can lead to bias against women who apply for roles that involve travelling away from home, while the assumption that someone with a disability or chronic illness would require more time away from work could result in bias when it comes to recruitment or promotion.
When bias is prevalent in your workplace, your organisation will struggle to hire diverse teams and efforts to improve inclusion will be fruitless.
How can you overcome bias in the workplace?
There is no excuse for discrimination of any kind – even if seemingly unconscious and especially at a time when there is a wealth of information at our finger tips to help us educate ourselves and check our own behaviour.
If you’re aware that bias exists, it is everyone’s responsibility – from the C-suite down – to examine their privileges and understand their influence on their internal thoughts and feelings. This may be an uncomfortable process, but a necessary and hopefully enlightening one.
On a larger scale, there are some things that can be done across your workplace to help snuff out bias:
- Show evidence – When it comes to recruitment or promotion, ensure decisions are justified by evidence and record reasons for your thinking. And don’t rush into making decision – take your time to consider issues and options properly to lessen the potency of any niggling biases.
- Expand your horizons – Encourage everyone to try and work with a wider range of people and get to know them individually. This could include you or your team members taking time to work in other teams and/or in different locations.
- Provide training – Regular and ongoing awareness of bias and providing your people with the tools to dismantle bias as part of a fuller D&I training programme will enable you to address the issue systematically and effectively. A single “understanding unconscious bias” training session is simp