February 27, 2020

What’s Unconscious Bias and How do we Avoid it at Work?

What’s the definition of unconscious bias? A quick Google search reveals the following explanation:

“Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their conscious awareness. Unconscious bias happens outside of our control. It occurs automatically and is triggered by our brain making a quick judgement”.

In simple terms; when we experience unconscious bias, we’re judging people and we can’t help it. Or can we? Follow our three steps to help tackle unconscious bias in the workplace!

1. Admit you have unconscious biases

Although we might like to think we’re open-minded, research shows that how we view and evaluate others is heavily influenced in ways that are completely hidden from our conscious mind.

Research also tells us that many of our biases stem from when we were young, the influences around us and past experiences. However, neuroscientists have said that if we’re aware of such biases or stereotypes, then we have the skills and intelligence to know they’re wrong.

So, if you want to tackle your own unconscious biases, you need to understand what they are. Then you can avoid acting upon them at work. But to figure them out, first, you need to admit that you have them. You see, that’s the main challenge here – your biases are unconscious, so it’s understandable to believe you don’t have any. But trust me, you do have them; everyone does!

It’s not nice to think you’re making snap judgements about people, so it’s going to be a hard thing to admit. But as soon as you do, you can start reflecting on what they are, so you can address them.

2. Reflect on your company meeting practices

This is one to try this week. In every meeting you join, take a step back and observe who gets invited to speak, who is listened to, who is talked over, and who leaves the room without getting the opportunity to join in. You might be pleasantly surprised; you may already have a highly inclusive culture at work. Alternatively, it might become apparent that people are being treated rather differently in meetings…

Reflect on what you observe over the course of various meetings with different people. Can you see any trends? For instance, is the ability to be heard and listened to in a meeting anything to do with age, gender, or ethnicity? Share your observations with your peers, is this something you can change together?

3. Take care when recruiting!

Question: how does unconscious bias affect decision-making during the interview process? Answer: a lot. Think interview attire, accents and tattoos!

An article by Forbes claimed that it takes as little as seven seconds for someone to make a solid impression of a candidate and as little as a tenth of a second to ascertain traits such as trustworthiness. Surely these ‘first impressions’ are being led by unconscious biases?!

To achieve a fairer decision-making process, why not develop an evaluation criterion and apply this consistently to each candidate? You’ll need to foster a structured set of interview questions specifically relating to the job description.

Also, try to avoid comparing each candidate against the previous interview and definitely don’t make decisions based on ‘gut feeling’ and candidates being a ‘good fit’… that’s your unconscious bias talking!

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About the author

Judy Simpson

About the author

Judy Simpson

With 15 years’ Human Resources experience, Judy has a wealth of knowledge across a diverse range of industries. During her career, she has used her strong negotiation skills to bring many difficult and unpredictable situations to a speedy and positive conclusion. HR consultancy often means ‘thinking on your feet’ for a prompt and best-possible solution. As well as specialising in employee relations for SMEs, Judy’s experience includes Working Time Regulations, apprenticeships, National Minimum Wage, Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employees (TUPE), relocations, Learning & Development, Strategic Planning, and Change Management.

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