Unconscious bias happens – and it’s present in each and every one of us. It’s a by-product of all the information that our brains receive. That information comes from everything we experience; everything we read; everything we do; what others say and do to us and so on.
Our brains use shortcuts to speed up decision-making. Unconscious bias is a by-product of this process.
This quick decision making can be useful – when we’re in a dangerous situation for example. However, such situations – especially in corporate life – are rare. Our rational minds know that making rash, uninformed and ill-considered decisions have unfortunate and adverse consequences.
This is especially true when managing people’s performance as well as when recruiting or promoting staff. So, unconscious bias is something that everyone should guard against – particularly line managers and HR professionals. Although unconscious bias is natural and unintended, it will adversely affect your decisions. The good news is that its presence can be recognised and its effects negated.
Unconscious bias happens when people favour others who look, speak or act like them and/or share their values. You may be drawn to someone with a similar educational background, from the same area as you, who’s the same colour or ethnicity as you or who shares your views.
When it comes to employing and promoting others at work, managers can easily develop preferences for team members who come from a similar background to them or who ‘remind them of a younger version of themselves’. This is called ‘affinity bias’, because the manager feels an affinity with the person because they have – or think they have – similar life experiences.
Another form of unconscious bias is known as ‘the halo effect’. This involves a positive character or skill trait being atttributed to a person without having any evidence of this trait. Those who dress conservatively could be seen as more capable in an office environment, or those who wear ‘posh clothes’ and/or ‘speak posh’ could be thought of as candidates for promotion.
Once these unconscious biases have come into effect, any subsequent behaviour that reinforces the bias is noticed but any behaviour that doesn’t support the bias is ignored. This is how people making decisions based on unconscious bias justify their views – and the consequences that follow as they act on those views.
If unconscious bias operates within a work context it leads to a less diverse workforce.
Moreover, talented workers can easily be overlooked and discouraged from exhibiting their talents to the organisation’s benefit. Instead, while these talented people are side-lined – and, so, are encouraged to leave – managers favour those who, they believe, share their own characteristics, views, preferences and prejudices.
Allowing unconscious bias to influence our decisions is discriminatory when it relates to a ‘protected characteristic’. For example, if, during the recruitment process, an employer ignores the skills and experience of a candidate who’s of a different race to the employer and, instead, appoints another candidate who’s of the same race as the employer, this may be discriminatory.
Here are ten things to bear in mind to help you to overcome unconscious bias in your organisation:
- Be aware that unconscious bias exists and is always trying to manifest itself, in the name of perceived (but incomplete) evidence, efficiency, effectiveness – and expediency.
- Stress and/or tiredness tends to increase the likelihood of our decisions being based on unconscious bias. So, try never to take decisions when you’re stressed and/or tired – and, if you do, be aware that your decisions at these times can easily be influenced by unconscious bias.
- Don’t rush decisions. Rather, take your time and consider issues carefully, rationally and as objectively as possible.
- Justify decisions with hard evidence and record the reasons for your decisions.
- Try to work with a wider range of people and get to know them as individuals. This could include working with different teams or colleagues based in a different location.
- Focus on the positive behaviour of people – and not on negative stereotypes.
- Implement policies and procedures which limit the influence of individual characteristics and preferences.
- Use name-blind recruitment. This involves removing information such as a job applicant’s name, gender, and age from their application form before it’s shared with the person carrying out the recruitment. This should help to overcome possible discrimination or unconscious bias and promote diversity in the workforce. Research has shown that a person’s name can affect their success within the recruitment process.
- Remove any – and all – information that could unintentionally bias a decision-maker. This can help a member of an under-represented group to have confidence that their application will be fairly considered.
- Train managers in your organisation in the techniques that enable them to recognise, and overcome, their own unconscious bias.