All of us have unconscious biases and do not even know it. While you might deny this statement, science and research will prove you wrong. Even when our unconscious biases are incompatible with our conscious values, it happens. It’s hard-wired in us and when it happens, it blocks our vision. If you think you are never biased, then you are missing an opportunity to see the world differently.
Unconscious bias is a term used to describe the associations that we hold which, despite being outside our conscious awareness, can have a significant influence on our attitudes, behaviour and decision making in the workplace and life in general.
Bias’s occur because we process a person’s ethnicity, gender, age and disability rapidly and at the same time link that person to all the supposed ‘knowledge’ we have of the category with which we have labelled them. We form our views based on experience and by being influenced by stereotypes – widely held, simplified and essentialist belief about a specific group.
Scientists believe that this instinctive process serves a purpose because clustering people into groups with expected traits help us navigate the world without being overwhelmed by information. (Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2017). Our brain is constantly handling a lot of data so it filters for us what it sees, to organise it and create shortcuts.
As we rapidly form our thoughts and impressions societal assumptions and personal experiences get linked to individuals in a particular category. We then naturally favour those who look like us, sound like us and are interested in the same things. We are likely to be unsure of those who are different. It can affect how we select people to hire, to train, to promote and reward. At its worst, we form negative opinions, with stereotypes becoming the walls that hold us or others back, halting our progress.
Bias in the workplace can appear in many ways – through perception, affinity, conformity or the halo & horns effect to name just a few. Think about your own experiences:
If you’re a manager, are you certain you treat people fairly when hiring or developing? Are you giving certain responsibilities and training opportunities to one type of person over another?
In performance reviews, can you be sure that you rate on merit alone?
When managing a pay review or a flexible working request do you find yourself thinking differently about how to accommodate one employee over another?
When building collaborative teams, do you select the most qualified employees or ones with whom you’re most comfortable or click with?
To give you another concrete example, studies have repeatedly shown that the traits most commonly associated with successful leaders are those that align with stereotypically male behaviours. If our performance or succession management processes are built on identifying such traits, we are unlikely to promote women no matter how committed we are to championing female leadership.
Those you’re working alongside or reporting in to you, will have their own biases too. Do they treat you in the same way as they treat your peers? Are you getting the right support from those directly reporting into you or are you piling more on to your own plate because they are not as forth coming as they should be? It could point to their biases.
There are a number of ways in which we can all do something different to move towards ‘conscious inclusion’ instead of unconscious bias.
At an organisational level, unconscious biases can be difficult to spot. They are often cloaked in things like ‘culture fit’. Because of this, data analysis is often required to identify where these biases are at play. It’s crucial that HR and business leaders set measures and assess over time trends and patterns so that they can be addressed. This process of bias analysis can then point to any procedural or policy changes that are required.
Business leaders also need to demand decision-making that is justified with evidence, is transparent and can be explained to others. Checklists, standardised processes and ratings help with this.
At an individual level, we need to realise our biases in time and catch ourselves. When we encounter the unexpected, we need to have the courage to examine our own thoughts and behaviour. We can try being more actively conscious in our responses and decision-making towards others. What are your reactions to two similar requests from two different people? Are they different? In what way is this a sign of a bias?
We can also mentally ‘flip’ whoever we are dealing with. If you’re thinking certain qualities are expected of a man vs a woman for example, flip them and see if it feels strange to assign those qualities to the other. If it does feel strange, there could be a bias. Try visualising to take this further – whatever mental pictures you get of certain people, change them to open up to other possibilities.
Finally, gain exposure to the unexpected. Try different things, try new practices, challenge the norms, get to know people. At Pick Everard we have put a lot of energy in to creating visibility of people’s personal interests and skills, in our online Staffroom and on our People Hub, as well as sharing more about who we are professionally through the Being Pick Everard campaign.
Elizabeth Hardwick-Smith is Director of HR & Training at Pick Everard
Discrimination is bad news for workplaces and society alike. It can impact every aspect of workplace culture, through hiring practices, promotions, pay structure, productivity, and the overall wellbeing of employees.