Unconscious Bias: The Full Story

Published on: Wed 13 January 2016 by Admin

Where is Unconscious Bias impacting your business?

Unconscious bias is almost certainly at play in every part of our lives, at work and in the wider world. At work, it’s about considering where the effects of our unconscious biases impact on ourselves and our colleagues, then taking steps to prevent or alleviate those impacts where required. These will differ from one organisation to another but typical hot spots are where an organisation:

  • Recruits and selects people
  • Promotes people
  • Mentors people (or not!)
  • Allocates projects
  • Give development opportunities
  • Listens to people’s ideas
  • Networks (formally and informally)
  • Give performance reviews
  • Demonstrates diversity (or lack of it ) in decision making and career pipelines
  • Conducts marketing campaigns
  • Anticipates and target new markets
  • Engages with customers – and potential customers
  • Determines organisational strategy

An Example of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Unconscious bias can and often does impact on the way we motivate, manage and engage with employees. This means that we may be encouraging some employees more and discouraging others, unknowingly. So some people are being set up to fail – whilst we are completely unaware that we are doing it – and without the slightest conscious intention to favour one person or group over others. (This goes beyond having your ‘favourites’ to favouring (or disfavouring) some over others completely unwittingly.)

The reaction of those who are feeling overlooked probably impacts negatively on their performance – through a subtle sense of inadequacy compared to colleagues. If the unconscious bias of the manager is at the root of this it is likely it pervades through that area of the organisation. It impacts on performance management process, provision of training, promotion and limits the equitable supply of those nuggets of favourable treatment that motivate and engage people.

Failing to address this can mean that performance management is of itself biased. Of course, where this is due to unconscious bias no action is taken because we don’t examine our behaviours in a way that will bring awareness of these biases to our active consciousness.

So how do we address UB?

Step 1: Awareness of Unconscious Bias in Your Own Interactions

The first step is to recognise that our interactions can be biased and to become alert to signals that we may be giving that affect others. Particularly the signals that make others think that we disfavour them over their colleagues.

These can include:

Micro Inequities – tiny signals, of which we may be unaware, but which cause the other person to feel disfavoured. Small body language signals, facial expressions, glances, lack of or enhanced eye contact all have the potential to include or exclude.

Micro Affirmations – tiny things that do the opposite to the negative impacts of unconscious bias and micro inequities. Developing a habit of including everyone through eye contact at every meeting, by showing a conscious warm smile and word of welcome to everyone we encounter, all help to nurture inclusion and offset perceptions that we favour one person over another.

Step 2. Addressing an Organisation’s Culture of Bias

A discrimination case reported in Personnel Today highlights the risk of allowing bias to affect decisions:

“Ms Francis, of African-Caribbean origin, claimed she was passed over for promotion by her employer, the London Probation Trust, in favour of a White female candidate. Although she was not able to show a history of racial slurs or poor treatment, her claim was upheld in the tribunal because evidence showed that the all-White panel had taken an inconsistent approach to scoring the two candidates, and concluded that there was a “de facto glass ceiling” in place that prevented non-White candidates from achieving more senior roles. Other Black employees gave evidence that White staff often received informal sponsorship and encouragement, while Black staff did not.

Much of what happened in this case may not have been malicious or deliberate on the part of management, but it demonstrates how easily bias can slip into an organisation’s culture.”

Offering unconscious bias training across the board, can at least prompt staff to consider their biases in their decision making.

‘Project Implicitly’ UK Implicit Association Tests

One way to raise awareness of unconscious bias and measure where ours may lie is to use implicitly tests. The specialist publisher Hogrefe provide online ‘Implicitly‘ Association Tests that are suitable to our UK environment and culture.

These tests take just 3-4 minutes yet in that time the results can clearly indicate whether an individuals’ unconscious bias is low, significant, or high. The tests focus on eight areas:

  • Ethnic minority (White/Black)
  • Ethnic minority (White/Asian)
  • Ethnic minority (White/SE Asian)
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Disability
  • Sexual orientation (homosexual/heterosexual woman)
  • Sexual orientation (homosexual/heterosexual man)

RightTrack accredited specialists have been training on unconscious bias testing and are accredited to feedback and coach individuals where required.

Results from Implicit Association Tests can be valuable in team development contexts as well as part of organisational audits and development programmes. They can provide powerful insights as part of a learning programme and instigate changes to mitigate the impact of unconscious biases within your organisation.

From there, supportive coaching helps individuals, most likely to show signs of bias in their behaviour, to develop simple strategies to overcome their hidden biases.  This is a positive experience with no negative connotations – it will simply help people to make better business decisions.

It can be easy to reject the results of the tests as “not me” when we first encounter them. But that’s the easy path. To ask where these biases come from, what they mean, and what we can do about them is a productive and rewarding task.