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How Does Unconscious Bias Affect Your Workplace and What Can You Do To Avoid It?

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is a type of bias that we are not aware of. It is implicit, or the result of mental shortcuts. Biases are generally uncomfortable and challenging to accept however, we all have unconscious biases that affect the way we judge others, especially in the workplace. The level of bias we hold varies from person to person and they arise from our own upbringing, our previous experiences throughout life and also from what we are exposed to by the media and advertising.

We often separate ourselves from anything that feels different – with anything that feels alien or doesn’t fit with our idea of ‘normal.’ And this can keep us from learning, adapting and embracing new ways of doing things. We all naturally think that OUR way is the best way, so embracing change and difference can be difficult.

As an example, I want you to fold your arms right now if you can. This should feel comfortable to you because you’ve naturally put one arm over the other without thinking about it. This is because it’s automatic - it’s YOUR way of doing it. It’s a good example of how your unconscious mind tells your arms to fold in a certain way without you even realising that an instruction has even been given.

Now I want you to swap your arms over.

If you stay like this for a moment and think about how it feels, chances are it feels a little uncomfortable, or at least a little strange. But, by making the conscious decision to swap your arms over, you’re now AWARE of the action, and you’re trying out something new. And the more you do it, the more comfortable it will feel.

We can't get rid of biases but we can become more conscious of our own. In turn, we can adopt strategies to counteract bias and take steps to avoid making assumptions about others.

Look at the following photo's, who would you most likely choose as your next recruit?

How would you justify your decision? Does your choice reveal a hidden bias?

What are the different types of unconscious bias?

There are different types of unconscious bias, which can be broadly classified into four categories: affinity bias, stereotype bias, prejudice, and confirmation bias.

Affinity bias is when we tend to like people who are similar to us in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, age, or other factors. For example, we may be more likely to hire someone who is like us in terms of race or gender.

Stereotype bias is when we have preconceived notions about groups of people that lead us to make judgments about them. For example, we may think that all women are bad drivers.

Prejudice is when we have negative feelings towards someone because of their membership in a group. For example, we may dislike someone because they are a member of a different race or ethnicity.

Confirmation bias is when we seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs and ignore information that contradicts them. For example, if we believe that all women are bad drivers, we may only notice the times when a woman driver makes a mistake and ignore the times when a man driver makes a mistake. So, if we make a judgement about someone, we’ll continue to look for reasons to confirm we’re right.

We have trouble believing evidence that goes against our beliefs. Questioning your beliefs about anything that is DIFFERENT is a good place to start with identifying unconscious biases.

What causes unconscious bias?

Bias is defined as an inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair. Unconscious bias is a type of bias that happens automatically and outside of our control. It is the result of the mental shortcuts our brain takes to save time and energy. These shortcuts often lead us to make inaccurate assumptions and judgments about others.

Unconscious biases are actually the result of our mind dealing with the overload of information it receives all the time, it's why we automatically put people, places and things into categories. Research estimates that our brains process around 11 million pieces of information per second. Out of that 11 million pieces of information however, our brain is actually only conscious of about 40 pieces of information!

Unconscious bias in the workplace – how does it affect people?

Unconscious bias in the workplace can have a negative impact on people, especially if they are not aware of it. It can lead to discrimination and exclusion from opportunities. It can also result in a lack of diversity in the workplace, as people with certain types of bias may be less likely to hire or promote employees from underrepresented groups

Gender bias is a common form of unconscious bias in the workplace. It can manifest as women being treated less seriously than men, or being passed over for promotions in favor of men. Racial bias can also be a problem in the workplace, with people of color being unfairly treated or excluded from opportunities.

Have a think about your own workplace, and any ‘unconscious patterns’ it might have.

Maybe your workforce is quite young, with very few employees over a certain age. Perhaps there are a lot more men than women, or the other way around?

Maybe quite a few of your team are from the same race, or have the same cultural background? It can be as subtle as many of you having similar personalities and opinions. If any obvious patterns have jumped out at you, can you see the disadvantages?

Studies show that diversity is a competitive advantage for organisations. It's actually best to draw ideas from a range of people who bring different skills, opinions and experience to the table.

How can you test for unconscious bias?

There are a few different ways that you can test for unconscious bias. One way is to use the Implicit Association Test, which measures the strength of your associations between certain concepts and groups of people; Another way is to take a look at your own behavior and see if you're exhibiting any signs of prejudice or discrimination. Finally, you can ask yourself whether or not you're making any assumptions about people based on their race, gender, sexuality, or other factors. If you're not sure whether or not you're biased, it's always best to err on the side of caution and assume that you might be.

Ways to reduce unconscious bias

As with any new skill, reducing bias and building an inclusive culture takes time and practice. To combat unconscious bias, we need to be aware of its existence and be willing to examine our own beliefs. We can also try to become more exposed to people and experiences that are different from our own.

Self-awareness is a vital step - if you observe what your mind and body are doing when they think you’re not paying attention, you’ll end up finding patterns in your behaviour. For example, if two different colleagues ask you a similar question - and the first irritates you but the other doesn’t - ask yourself WHY. If you can’t find a valid reason for your reaction, think back to the common biases. Remember that none of us can help having biases, so it does no good to judge yourself or others for it. But you need to know why it’s there, and if it’s fair.

You can eliminate bias at the first stage of the employment lifecycle by advertising a vacancy in different ways and on different platforms so it’s available to a range of people - minority groups need to be able to access it. Also, don't put anything in the job description that isn't needed, only include the things that matter, your aim is to recruit the person with the right skills and experience that are needed for the role.

One other way to combat bias is to make decisions based on facts and evidence and not on stereotypes, Ensure you have systems in place to collect facts and evidence to base your decisions on, this is particularly important during the recruitment stage and can be easily achieved by using scoring systems for shortlisting and interviews and by recorded notes. You can also apply this method to reduce selective thinking/memory during staff appraisals by making notes of what you need to discuss before the meeting, and make notes during the meeting if you need to. At the end of the meeting, make sure both sides take it in turns to repeat the key points that they heard the other one say, so if anything has been missed out, or misunderstood, it can be sorted out there and then.

It's also a good idea to look into your organisation's policies, procedures and work practices to see if any of them encourage stereotyping or negative behaviour patterns. This could be something as simple as two departments having a problem with each other because they're treated differently by management.

Understanding unconscious bias is important because it can help us to recognise when we might be making judgments that are not fair or accurate. The Royal Society has produced a video that explores some of the ways in which unconscious bias can operate, and how we can begin to address it;

Ultimately it's down to you and every individual within your organisation to make a commitment to constantly look for and challenge bias.

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