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How to Combat Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

As human beings we’ve been hard-wired to make quick, unconscious decisions about people, places, and things since the beginning of time - it’s primal.

The issue, however, is that as we’ve evolved, the need for making these types of decisions has diminished. After all, we no longer live in exposed caves or have trouble comprehending the idea of a warm fire.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t take away from the fact that we haven’t yet evolved past making these fast, intuitive (and often incorrect) decisions about other people. We still have the tendency to go about our daily lives making unconscious judgments that subsequently affect our attitudes and behaviours towards others, causing negative consequences both in life and at work.

So, how can we - as modern humans - combat unconscious bias in the workplace? Below we give you some pointers.

What is unconscious bias?

Before going over how to combat unconscious bias, it’s best that we first go over what unconscious bias actually is.

Simply put, unconscious biases are social stereotypes we place on particular individuals or groups of people that we’ve formed outside our own awareness, consciousness, or control.

From a fundamental standpoint (again, going back to human evolution), our unconscious bias is essential as this type of pre-judging helps us to make decisions that could - quite literally - save our lives. Today, this type of social categorisation helps us manage our day-to-day encounters with ease.

The catch?

This decision-making process isn’t always the most effective - or logical - as the majority of our unconscious biases lie within the realm of ignorance or assumption. So, whether we mean to or not, this tends to lead to painting people with the wrong brush.

Why is it important to recognise it?

While developing unconscious bias is a natural part of the human experience, recognising unconscious bias is important - especially in the workplace - because its existence is to blame for a lot of key issues in organisations, including:

  • Unfair recruitment and hiring processes
  • Lack of diversity and inclusion
  • Bullying, harassment, and discrimination
  • Lack of employee engagement and productivity
  • The negative impact on employee retention rates, and
  • The hindrance of employee development

These issues typically come about due to factors that lead to (often unfair) biases, such as:

  • Social identity: implicit bias or stereotypes that have been formed based on a person’s gender, ethnicity, race, or other social categories.
  • Choice of dress: what someone wears can have a profound impact on what hiring managers and co-workers think of them.
  • How someone speaks: people tend to make assumptions based on people’s social accents or ways of speaking, and at work, this might affect how managers see you fitting into the business.
  • Assumptions based on a CV: when employers look at previous work, volunteer, and education experience on a CV, assumptions are often made based on these noted experiences and can work either in favour of a candidate or against their progression.

Whether we realise it or not, when we perceive any of the above factors as favourable, we typically overlook any of the negative attributes a potential or current employee might have and the same goes for the other way around - also known as the ‘Halo Effect’.

When we allow our negative biases to get in the way, however, we can overlook what positive and valuable traits, skills and perspectives a person can bring to the table, which, over time, becomes a true detriment to organisations and their employees.

4 Laptops With Headphones On A Desk

How to Combat Unconscious Bias

Without a doubt, moving past implicit bias takes work. Especially considering we’re not even aware that it’s there the majority of the time. So, if you want to combat unconscious bias in the workplace, here are a few ways you can get started:

Identify your biases

It’s easy (and convenient) to assume you’re not someone who harbours any unconscious bias, however, it’s genuinely inevitable if you’re a living, breathing human.

That’s why taking time to reflect and address your ‘bias blindspot’ is so important. This means having open, honest, and effective conversations with managers, friends, and co-workers who might provide insight into where they feel you you might display bias (i.e. favouring a particular team member or making negative assumptions of another).

This will help you become more aware of your actions and make better, more informed decisions in the future.

Conduct unconscious bias tests

While conversations with others are a great way to expand a platform for important dialogue,  conducting unconscious bias tests can help you address unconscious bias in a practical way.

Back in 1998, the original unconscious bias test was created by scientists from the Universities of Washington, Virginia, and Harvard who dubbed it ‘Project Implicit’. The test is designed to indicate your level of bias and where it sits within the general population - and today they’re available for free online

These tests typically involve matching words and pictures to ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ categories that involve elements of various social categories including race, religion, disability, gender, and sexual orientation.

While these tests aren’t meant to show what your biases actually are, they’re a reliable indicator of whether you’re more or less biased than other people.  

Ditch the ‘glass half full’ approach

When it comes to business, typically it’s considered a strategically better move to focus on positive results rather than negative ones. This, however, is what’s referred to as the ‘unconscious bias framing effect’.

For example, an employee who meets 80% of their targets versus another who missed 20% of their targets are inarguably performing at the same level, though how a manager chooses to frame these results (either positively or negatively) has the power to change the perception of the employee and says a lot about the unconscious bias of the manager in question.

To this end, it’s important to challenge this effect by using consistent, routine evaluation processes to get a more accurate understanding of the bigger picture and to ensure that employees are being assessed fairly and accurately.

Foster a diverse and inclusive work environment

Diversity and inclusion are key and essential elements to challenging bias in the workplace, but it’s not always obvious or easy to implement the corrective actions. Not to fear though! A few simple ways to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace include:

  • Editing recruitment and hiring processes to include blind hiring, skills tests, and structured interviews.
  • Assisting managers with focusing on the steps to champion diversity by focusing on inclusivity.
  • Encouraging recognition among leaders and co-workers alike (enabling a sense of connection and shared purpose).
  • Executing training activities that address stereotypes and provide solutions.
  • Assigning diverse groups to work together on projects (i.e. working towards a common goal).
  • Arranging routine surveys and one to one meetings to solicit honest employee feedback about your organisation’s efforts related to diversity, inclusion, and combating unconscious bias

Practice empathy

At the end of the day, we’re all people who come from varying backgrounds and different experiences. That’s why in order to challenge unconscious bias, we need to keep an open mind and act with empathy when it comes to the people we live, work, and connect with.

Keep in mind though that while empathy is necessary, it shouldn’t be used to justify any assumptions. For example, if you notice an employee or co-worker is experiencing discrimination of any kind, don’t assume they want your help in providing a solution. First, ask them what they’d like to do rather than act on what you think they’d appreciate.

This encourages thoughtful, constructive conversations and promises a better outcome to the alternative.

Unconscious bias prevents organisations from recruiting and retaining diverse talent, acting as a barrier to equality and a disadvantage to organisations worldwide.

However, by developing an educated, engaged workforce and leveraging individual experiences and perspectives, it’s possible to establish transformation and reduce bias in the workplace.

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