It is entrenched in the UK legal framework, through the Equality Act 2010, that employers must not discriminate based on a wide range of protected characteristics including a person's age, sex, race, disability, religion or belief, or sexual orientation.
While conscious prejudices continue to be pushed further out of the workplace, discriminatory attitudes can still prevail in the form of unconscious biases which can be harder to identify and overcome.
What is 'unconscious bias' and how does it affect the workplace?
Put simply, the term unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of. It is a prejudice that happens involuntarily and is triggered by our brain making rapid judgments about people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.
Unconscious bias can cause decisions to be made in favour of one group to the detriment of others and can impact every aspect of the workplace — for example recruitment, staff retention, performance management, promotion and the allocation of work assignments. This can lead to a less diverse workforce and can significantly affect staff mobility as well as motivation, as managers can favour individuals who share their own characteristics and views and overlook talented workers.
Here are some characteristics of unconscious bias:
1. Unconscious bias is innate
Unconscious bias is the result of our brains evolving to make decisions for our safety.
Our amygdala, located in the temporal lobe of the brain, is responsible for our 'fight or flight' rapid response and enables us to make decisions quickly, especially when we are under pressure.
Considering our often-pressurised work environments, it is no surprise that decisions made may appear on the surface perfectly normal but are based on a prejudiced view that we consider 'safe'.
2. Unconscious bias is unintentional
It is important to remember that where bias is unconscious it is unintended. We are all influenced by our initial perceptions, whether we realise them or not.
Beginning to recognise and challenge our decision-making processes is the first step to eradicate biases from the workplace. If we do not consciously recognise our own biases, they will only be evident in the results they produce, and while this certainly isn't the same as purposely discriminating against someone it can produce the same result.
3. Unconscious bias can affect decisions
Research into unconscious bias has found that it can have a real effect on peoples' lives. Findings show a clear association between perceptions of successful managers and what is considered typically 'male' characteristics1 and a significant reduction in the recommendation of non-native speakers for management positions2. In one study, more than 49% of victims testified that unconscious bias was part and parcel of their workplace, while 60% stated that it remained an issue over which they had no control3.
Of course, some of these results can be attributed to the continued existence of open discrimination. Conscious biases are easier to identify and deal with whilst unconscious bias can be much harder to tackle as in many cases, they remain hidden, even to the person who is affected by them.
4. Unconscious bias can be tackled effectively
Just because something is unconscious doesn't mean it is out of our control. Being mindful of unconscious bias is the first step to mitigating it, whether this involves examining your own decisions or momentarily halting a group discussion to consider its basis.
There may be instances where disciplinary action is necessary. However, tackling unconscious bias will often be a question of educating the individual. Employees may be genuinely unaware of how their decision-making processes are influenced, or the effect their decisions can have.
How to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace – 5 practical steps:
Identify, support and collaborate with effective programmes that increase diversity in the workplace and incentivise employees to become actively involved with these groups.
Question organisation norms to stop a discriminatory culture from developing. The Implicit Awareness Test (IAT) is a tool which measures unconscious bias by assessing your automatic associations between certain characteristics and certain groups. It is based on the idea that people do not always speak their minds because they are unwilling or unable to do so. You can find the test itself and further information here.
Review the employment lifecycle for hidden bias: screening applicants, interviews, assignment process, mentoring, promotion, termination and allocation of workload. You may want to consider 'Name-blinding' recruitment, where information such as name, gender and age are redacted from an application form, which can remove the potential for bias to influence recruitment decisions.
Track key data results. Documenting decisions helps to understand the grounds on which they were made and makes any flaws in the decision-making process more apparent. Organisations can also assess decision-making processes against the results they produce. For example, a company may wish to measure the number of individuals with protected characteristics who are recruited against their application rates or assess their mobility in the business.
Provide tailored training that improves workplace behaviours to promote a more motivating, fair and open environment.
Understanding the debilitating effect unconscious biases can have on workforce morale and the overall success of your business is vital. Providing a training on unconscious bias to your HR staff and management can help mitigate risk and create opportunity by including new approaches to recruitment, wider talent pools and the overall diversification of the working environment.
If you'd like more information on how to effectively tackle unconscious bias within your workplace please get in touch.
1 Virginia E. Schrein and Ruediger Mueller, 'Sex role stereotyping and requisite management characteristics: A cross cultural look' in Journal of Organizational Behaviour (1992)
2 Laura Huang, Marcia Frideger and Jone L. Pearce, 'Political skill: explaining the effects of non-native accent on managerial hiring and entrepreneurial investment decisions' in Journal of Applied Psychology (2013)
3 Judith Honesty, David Maxfield, Joseph Grenny, Organisational Culture, guidance on reacting to biased comments (2013)
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.