What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias is a term which is commonly used in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. In this blog post we try to demystify unconscious bias and explain what it really means.
Unconscious bias is an unconscious inclination or prejudice. It can be referred to in the context of a ‘gut’ feeling, or instinct feeling people have. These feelings will be informed by experiences and influences during their lives. There is usually no ill will, but it is nevertheless seen as an issue in workplaces. This bias can influence business decisions, and can compromise an employer’s ability to be an inclusive and equal workplace.
From a legal perspective, the areas to be aware of are around certain criteria, which could be covered under the description of a ‘protected characteristic’ most commonly related to age, gender, race, religion/belief, disability, sexuality and marital/partnership status.
Unconscious bias around gender, for example is the way someone might assume that a pink clothing item is appropriate for a little girl, or that little boys play with trucks while girls will want a dolly to play with. Or age bias might be that an older person is overqualified for a junior role they’ve applied for.
We’re all human, and our decisions are informed by our own experiences. So if it’s just about being human, why is it a problem?
What’s the problem?
Put simply, not tackling unconscious bias, means that those experiences and influences informing our decisions will continue to harm certain groups or individuals, unchecked. Being aware of our natural bias, means that we are more likely to look beyond the assumptions we may instinctively make about an individual or group, and prevent us from treating those people differently. Ultimately if they are treated differently, or they suffer a detriment as a result, they may have a claim for (indirect or direct) discrimination.
Over time, employees who think they are treated differently due to unconscious bias, develop feelings of isolation and alienation, and feel uncomfortable being themselves. This would take its toll on anyone, and may also affect the organisation’s performance overall. Employees who experience bias and prejudice often actively disengage and reduce their contributions, and ultimately seek a role elsewhere.
What are the benefits of tackling unconscious bias?
Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is seen as an increasingly important part of what a business has to offer. To be an inclusive employer means that employees feel welcome, valued and included. This in turn means team members will stay longer and be more engaged and productive.
Diversity in the workplace is a serious competitive advantage with immediate and tangible benefits. It ensures a variety of different perspectives and a variety of different skills and experiences. It gives organisations access to a greater range of talent, potentially increasing creativity and innovation.
The best way to overcome unconscious bias, is to ensure people become more self-aware (and self-critical) about their decisions and behaviours. This can be done via training in a variety of formats. Alternatively, you could develop some supporting systems and processes, to ensure decision makers at all levels are challenged in a safe setting.