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Unconscious bias in the workplace: what is it and how to tackle it?

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

A practical guide to unconscious bias in the workplace

Unconscious bias affects our decisions all the time, especially in the workplace. We like to think that we are objective, especially at work. In reality, we are all subject to unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias or hidden bias). The more we are aware of this, the more we can mitigate it. In this article we will look at the definition of unconscious bias, we will explore the impact it can have at work and we will offer some suggestions for mitigating bias in the workplace.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is any detectable bias in behaviour or attitude that we are not ourselves aware of. It is as real and damaging as conscious prejudice, and indeed can be more prevalent than other types of prejudice.

Researcher Mike Noon of London’s Queen Mary University defines it as: “learned social stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply engrained, universal and able to influence behaviour”.

One 1998 study, a landmark piece of research carried out at Yale and Washington universities, found that some form of bias runs through up to 95% of people.

Examples of unconscious bias in the workplace

Gender Bias

A common unconscious bias example in this situation is referred to as “bropropriating” – this occurs when a female member of the team makes a point about something, and there isn’t much interest in it. Then, a short time later, a male member of the team makes the same point, and everyone supports it. This bias can lead to female workers not wanting to share their ideas and can be an incredibly frustrating and demotivating factor.

Name Bias

This unconscious bias example comes into play most often when choosing people to interview. Despite best intentions, managers can be biased when reading names they consider “foreign” – this is obviously an issue as it can inhibit growth in diversity and preclude many qualified applicants from being interviewed.

Similarity Bias

The similarity bias essentially states that we like working with people similar to us. This could be graduates from specific schools, people who have worked at certain companies, and more. Organizations that are influenced by the similarity bias run the risk of having no diversity among their ideas and perspectives, which could lead to less-than-ideal solutions to problems.

The Halo Effect

The halo effect, sometimes called the halo error, is the tendency for positive impressions of a person to reflect positively or influence judgements and opinions in other areas. For example, when reading a prospective candidate CV, you may see that they went to a particular university and this may influence your opinions positively when looking at other areas, especially those that they may fall down on.

The Horns Effect

The horns effect is essentially the opposite of the halo effect. It is an unconscious bias which causes the perception of an individual to be unfairly influenced by a single negative trait. For example, if an individual uses a particular phrase that we don’t like, we may subsequently begin disliking a lot of things they say as a result.

Confirmation Bias

Another common example of unconscious bias is confirmation bias. This exists not only at work, but in everyday life as well. Confirmation bias occurs when we make a decision about something, then actively look for information that supports that decision, while also overlooking any opposing facts and viewpoints. This can be detrimental to a company as evidence that something should be done in a certain way could be ignored.

Age Bias

Age bias occurs when assigning tasks to people based on their age. A common example would be a tech-heavy project – the unconscious bias may cause a manager to assume that a younger person would be more apt to handle this job as opposed to an older one. In this case, assuming ones experience or proficiency is based entirely on an opinion that isn’t backed up on fact is a perfect example of unconscious bias. After all, many older people are technologically savvy, so it would be unfair to assume they wouldn’t be right for the job.

What impact can unconscious bias have at work?

Just like racism in its more overt forms, unconscious bias has a strongly negative impact on relationships in the workplace and hinders career growth for some. It may also adversely affect decisions on recruitment and impair diversity.

A study by the British Academy conducted in early 2019, for example, found a strong name bias in recruitment, with on average nearly a quarter (24%) of white British applicants got positive replies from employers, while just 15% of ethnic minority candidates with the same applications got positive responses.

Unconscious bias perpetuates racism and other discriminations in the workplace and if not tackled, it will not allow any anti-racism work to take place or any inclusive and diverse workplace to exist.

What can be done about unconscious bias in the workplace?

There are various ways of tackling unconscious bias in the workplace, but awareness of it is a crucial first step, particularly among decision makers. Colleagues could monitor one another and challenge any remarks or reinforcing of stereotypes, or you could consider establishing a diversity and inclusion committee. Equally, it may well be worth revisiting the rationale behind some recent decision (hiring, promoting) to see if any bias of which you were unaware at the time could have crept in.

At the same time, try and make slower, more considered decisions, rather than snap decisions. Implementing processes for decision-making including hiring, promoting, nominating can help reduce bias by forcing the decision-maker to think before making decisions.

You also need to think about how best to educate your staff on this type of prejudice and its potential negative impact.

What is unconscious bias training?

Unconscious bias training schemes in workplaces are aimed at exposing employees to discrimination they may not be aware of. Such programmes work to shift people’s automatic thinking patterns and responses, ultimately to help eliminate discriminatory behaviour altogether.

The idea is to make people more aware of where they are most likely to make implicit associations, and how to stop themselves from such connections from impacting others. (For example, reading about a Muslim terrorist and then having the word ‘terrorist’ come into your brain next time you hear the word ‘Muslim’.)

Over the last 10 years or so, organisations including Starbucks, Facebook and Google have increasingly introduced this training in a bid to enhance their diversity and inclusion programmes, which almost all Fortune 500 businesses, and most of the FTSE 350, now implement.

Starbucks famously closed thousands of its US outlets to conduct this training, after a staff member in Philadelphia called the police just because two black men had sat down without ordering anything.

Are there any potential downsides to unconscious bias training?

In a word, yes. Bad training, for instance, doesn’t just fail to work – it can be actively counterproductive.

Equally, it won’t work if it’s seen as a ‘quick fix’ or complete solution. And no one should come away afterwards thinking that such bias is not their fault because it’s unconscious, or feeling they have no personal responsibility for the damage it can cause.

Another potential downside is that this type of training is sometimes hard to measure accurately to assess its impact.

Finally, clearly conscious bias needs to be tackled at the same time, to create a holistic approach.

How we can help

At Inspired Human, we provide high-quality unconscious bias training based on practical workplace examples and exercises across the tech sector so that you will notice a tangible difference in behaviour in your organisation, as part of an overall strategy for tackling racism in all its forms. Take the first step by booking an hour-long initial diversity and inclusion consultation today, free of charge.

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