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Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

What is unconscious bias and how do you eliminate it from workplace decision making?

two women holding an interview

It’s commonly quoted that the human brain processes eleven million pieces of information per second unconsciously, compared to just forty processed consciously. With such a significant amount of information processed without conscious awareness, it is vital for organisations to learn about the associated risks and how they might impact the day-to-day running of their business. Educating the workforce is key to develop and maintain a truly inclusive and high performing culture.

In this article we discuss the types of unconscious bias and suggest ways to overcome it to promote diversity from within.

So, what is unconscious bias?

Unconscious or implicit bias refers to the associations that are made between different qualities and social categories such as race, gender or disability and are judgements that are made without conscious awareness. These automatic preferences or stereotypes are a major contributor to a lack of workplace diversity. In 1998, a milestone study carried out by a team of social psychologists at the University of Washington and Yale analysed the reality behind people’s biases and measured the root cause of their prejudice, concluding that biases ran through 90-95% of people.  Unfortunately, this sameness thinking is becoming a common reality in our lives, our workplace culture, and according to Forbes, is even becoming hard coded into artificial intelligence (AI).

Every time we make a decision, our background, life experiences and cultural values all influence our reasoning. Over time, the human brain has developed tactics to enable us to navigate the incredible amount of information we’re exposed to on a daily basis. This cognitive function can be very helpful, but often leads to snap decisions being made which, in many cases, can be wrong or poorly informed. In the workplace this can have a negative impact on recruitment decisions, slow down employee development, impair diversity and increase attrition.

Types of unconscious bias

As well as being a common component to many people’s cognitive behaviours, the concept of unconscious bias is made even more complex by the many types of biases that can exist. According to Neuroleadership Institute, some of these include:

Similarity bias

Similarity bias can occur because humans tend to lean towards and favour those who present most similar to themselves. In business, this can influence people management decisions about who to hire, who to promote, and who to assign to a particular project.

Expedience bias

Ambiguity can create discomfort so it’s only natural to feel most comfortable when things are certain. A downside of that desire for certainty, is the tendency to rush a decision without fully considering all the facts. For example, expedience bias can arise when we judge employees’ performance based solely on one data point or recommendation.

Experience bias

We each have our own set of lived experiences which shape the way we view the world, but other people see the world differently than we do. Experience bias occurs when we assume our view of a given problem or situation constitutes the whole truth and we are therefore bias towards our own lived experience.

Distance bias

This type of bias reflects our instinct to prioritise what’s nearby, whether in physical space or time. In the workplace, this can lead to decisions being made by people who are within immediate proximity and not including remote colleagues in decision making meetings.

Safety bias

Safety bias relates to our human desire to avoid loss and stay safe. This can hold us back from healthy forms of risk-taking and slow down innovation or business improvement.

The impact of unconscious bias in the workplace

Although widely recognised that diversity of thought and innovation are key to secure bottom-line results and workplace productivity, our unconscious preferences for people who are like us continue to severely challenge our ability to create these conditions.

Biases can exist in every encounter we have from the language used in job specifications to overlooking poor performance of those we know and like.

In talent attraction and retention, biases can lead to generalisations that determine the right candidate for the job not based on their skills, but on the perceived origin of their name or nationality. In 2019, a study by experts based at the Centre of Social Investigation at Nuffield College, University of Oxford found 24% of job applicants of white British origin received a positive response from employers, compared with only 15% of ethnic minority applicants with identical CVs and cover letters. Gender biases are also common with many job roles that historically attract one gender over the other, for example female nurses or male engineers. Whilst in some industries there may be traditional stereotypes, it is important for managers to advertise and hire on the qualities and characteristics required for the job and be aware of how easily gender biases can arise.

In some more severe cases, strong preferential bias of any kind can lead to workplace bullying, unlawful harassment or discrimination putting businesses at high risk of reputational damage and any associated financial costs as issues develop.

Mitigating bias and promoting diversity

Implicit biases can be hard to address because by their very nature they are unconscious and may be hard to recognise and accept. However, promoting a culture of respect for difference encourages diverse ideas to be expressed, leading to greater creativity and innovation. This is important in the workplace but also in the way that businesses respond to customer needs and ultimately strengthen their business brand.

To eliminate unconscious bias in the workplace, consider the following:

  • Educate employees on the types of unconscious bias and negative consequences that can arise from allowing such behaviour to become normalised
  • Monitor each other for unconscious bias and question comments or remarks on cultural or gender stereotypes.
  • Reconsider the rationale behind an initial decision to establish if all facts were considered or if biases have crept in.
  • Deliberately slow down decision making to reduce the likelihood of a making a snap decision.
  • Invest in setting up DEI committee to build and maintain processes and enforce cultural behaviours that align with the diversity goals of the company.

Lasana Harris, a neuroscientist who studies prejudice and social learning at University College London, said that the concept of unconscious bias should not absolve people of discriminatory behaviour, but “if you’re aware of these [biases] then you can bring to bear all of your critical skills and intelligence to see it’s wrong to think like that” and that these are thoughts we all have the ability to control.

In the workplace, this starts with awareness and becoming mindful of unconscious bias, but it is of particular importance for those with decision-making power on hiring, promotions and business best practice. Individual awareness and ownership must also be underpinned by policy, processes and frameworks to truly promote diversity throughout the workplace.

Creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive (DEI) culture is core to our business at TEKsystems. Our robust team of DEI leaders head up initiatives across the company to increase awareness, decrease unconscious biases, and offer support and guidance to our teams around the world. Recognising the significance and importance of unconscious bias and its widespread impact, TEKsystems has put over 90 employees (including many of our leaders) through unconscious bias training over the course of 2023 and we’ve now embedded this training into the learning journeys of our people moving forward.

Find out more about DEI at TEKsystems.