6 examples of Unconscious Bias at work that you may not notice

Published on: Thu 16 November 2023 by Admin

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Unconscious bias are those biases that we hold, but we are very much unaware of. Through assumptions we make, past experiences, and the stereotypes that we are fed by other people and the media, our unconscious bias shows up in our everyday interactions. And without being informed, our unconscious bias will remain unmanaged which in turn will affect our decision making and our engagement with others around us.

This can be particularly damaging within the workplace as it could wrongfully influence the people we recruit, contribute towards a toxic culture by treating people differently and lead to employees leaving their job.

Let’s take a look at examples of unconscious bias in the workplace and what you should do if you come across them…

Unconscious Bias: Microaggressions

You work with someone on a daily basis, but they still get your name incorrect. On top of that, they have now confused you with another member of the team.

Repeatedly correcting someone over your name is frustrating and tiring. It implies they’re not listening to you and also, they don’t value enough to learn your name. This could end up lowering your self-esteem, which means that you’ll be less likely to want to speak out later on, or work with this particular colleague again.

It’s a hard one – you tell them your actual name near enough every time they get it wrong, so what else can you do? Pull them to a side and have a conversation solely focusing on this issue, not part of another conversation about work. Explain your feelings and explicitly let them know what you would like to change. This may be out of your comfort zone as you don’t want to cause any tension, but this conversation needs to happen for the other person to realise.   

Watch our ‘What’s in a Name?’ webinar to understand the role our name plays in connecting with others.

Unconscious Bias: Returning to work after parental leave

Congratulations, you’re expecting your first child! Aside from the obvious questions like “do you know what you’re having?” or “have you got everything sorted?”, you keep being asked the same question again and again: “when are you planning on coming back?”.

Your colleagues may be excited for you and don’t want to see you leave, but nonetheless it might feel like they are calling into question your commitment to the role. This question could have an undertone of “will you still be dedicated to this role?”, “will we have to find a long-term solution if you don’t come back?” or “is the new arrival going to change the hours you work?”.

First of all, remember a decision hasn’t got to be made yet before your parental leave! The best thing to do here is to talk to HR or your line manager so both parties are confident and happy about the process.

Unconscious Bias: Working Carers

There was a work social event last month, but you had to politely decline because as a working Carer, you had other commitments at the same time. However, you have just heard in the office that there’s another after-work event next week, but you haven’t been invited.

You’re probably feeling excluded, a bit deflated and possibly quite frustrated. It’s a hard one not to take personally. Yes, being a Carer limits your own personal time and you feel guilty for wanting to enjoy time to yourself again. But for someone else to assume because you are a Carer, you won’t be able to attend is hard to hear. Even though it’s an out-of-work event, you know you will be missing out on important work conversations, which could impact your job and progression.

Speak to the person organising the event and let them know how you’re feeling. They, along with other colleagues, may have made assumptions when it comes to working Carers; suggest running a team activity to raise awareness on Carers and the impact of their work/life balance.

Unconscious Bias: Age

There’s a promotion opening available within your organisation. This could be a great opportunity, and even though two other people in your team have been encouraged by another departmental manager to go for it, you believe with your past experiences and successes, that you have a good chance of getting it. However, the manager hasn’t mentioned anything to you like they have with your other team members. After a discussion with this manager, they assumed you wouldn’t want to go for it due to your age and your part-time hours.  

So, a person’s age should not be associated with their work abilities. Even though the manager knows you have heaps of experience, they wrongfully assumed you wouldn’t be focused on developing your career or having more responsibility due to your age and your working hours. In doing this, the organisation could lose out on the knowledge and experience you have.

It’s time to take charge of this situation and make sure you are heard. Have a conversation with your own manager and let them know. Speak to HR as well – they need to be made aware of this issue, especially if this departmental manager is on the hiring team as their assumption could not only hinder your chances but influence other people’s decision-making.

Unconscious Bias: Mental Health

You’re in a meeting about an ongoing project and need the figures. Your colleague states they haven’t got this information because the relevant team member is off ill with “stress”. Your colleague implies that this is a recurring event when important jobs need to be done and assumes they are pretending to be off ill with stress to get out of it.

By the sounds of it your colleague feels as though they have been let down by not having this information to hand for the meeting. But they obviously don’t realise the bigger picture that the absent colleague is struggling with mental health issues.

If the way your colleague is talking has made you feel uncomfortable, speak up. Your colleague is wrong to make the assumption they have, however approach the conversation calmly and factually as they may not be aware of how they’re coming across.

Unconscious Bias: Accents

You’re on the hiring panel and have just carried out the first round of interviews for a new job role. Another manager on the hiring panel wants to disregard applicant A because of their accent, making comments about it sounding uneducated. Applicant B is well-spoken and has attended a prestigious university so your colleague has assumed they will succeed better in the role, even though Applicant A’s work experience is equally as good as Applicant B.

Unconsciously, your colleague has categorised these applicants because of their accents and education and has therefore closed off their thinking before even looking at their work experience. This type of bias impacts a fair recruiting process and will also impact on a diverse workforce.

In this situation, it’s important not to back down; you don’t want to miss out on great talent. Let your colleague state their points, kindly thank them and sensitively explain your thoughts. Follow this up by showing your colleague the vast experience Applicant A can bring to job role and suggest that both candidates are invited to the second interview where they can showcase their skills, offering a fair recruitment process to them both.

In summary…

Everyone has biases; sometimes these go amiss, and other times we recognise them as soon as it has occurred. The important thing is acknowledging that we have them, understanding when they show up and learn strategies on how we can prevent them.

How many of us have made assumptions based on someone’s gender, someone having parental/caring responsibilities or because of the way someone looks? As individuals, we need to keep challenging our assumptions. Unconscious bias training can help to identify the assumptions and stereotypes we make and move away from making decisions based on these.