Dealing with unconscious bias in the workplace

Unfortunately, unconscious bias is unavoidable. 

Whether we realise it or not, some of the stereotypes and preconceptions we hold influence our decisions on a daily basis. Both personally, and professionally. But how can you spot unconscious bias at work? And what can you do if you feel your career is being held back by these views?

Here’s some more information about unconscious bias, and our top tips on how to deal with it in the workplace:

 

What is unconscious bias? 

Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) is when we form opinions about people based on our preconceptions, or social stereotypes. 

As the name suggests, these are often formed without us realising it. Meaning they could be based on our previous experiences, our upbringing, or a number of other factors. In fact, studies have shown that we learn our biases between the age of five and seven.  

However, they may affect our interactions with certain individuals or groups of individuals – whether it’s at work, or just in our lives in general. 

 

Types of unconscious bias

There are many different ways that our preconceptions could play out on a daily basis. Some of the main types of unconscious biases are generally identified as:

 

Affinity bias – Showing a preference for people who are similar to ourselves, in some way (e.g. age, race, shared interests, etc.)

Beauty bias – Favouring people we feel are physically attractive, or making decisions about people based on their looks. 

Confirmation bias – Forming opinions on individuals which confirm our beliefs about them. In other words, if we’ve already made our minds up about someone, we will only take on board information if it matches up with that idea. 

Gender bias – Treating someone differently based on their gender. 

The halo effect or the horns effect– The halo effect is where we only ever choose to see someone in a positive light, because we like them as a person. The horns effect is the complete opposite of this – meaning we’ll always view them in a negative light, simply because we don’t like them.  

 

This is by no means an exhaustive list – and there is a variety of other examples of unconscious bias which may not fit within this list, that you could still see on a daily basis. 

 

Unconscious bias examples

There are many examples of unconscious bias – both positive, and negative.

Some common examples of unconscious bias you may see in the workplace include, but are not limited to:

 

  • Someone being passed over for a promotion based on their age, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or gender (rather than for any work-based reason)
  • Only socialising with people who share similar characteristics to yourself
  • Not hiring someone because they have a tattoo or body piercings (even if this won’t have an affect on their role)
  • Choosing to hire someone because you’re attracted to them
  • Placing more value on someone’s opinion because they are a friend
  • Not including people in a meeting because you don’t like them on a personal level
  • Not inviting someone to a social/team building event, because you’re worried a disability may not allow them to take part

 

Unconscious bias training 

Unconscious bias is often unintentional. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be worked on.

Taking responsibility for our unconscious biases are a great first step in helping us overcome them. Which is why training in this area can be an incredibly useful tool. 

Many businesses offer this as part of their internal training programme – but there are a number of unconscious bias courses out there to help you work on the area independently.

 

Dealing with unconscious bias at work

Our unconscious biases can have a huge impact when it comes to decisions made in the workplace. Even if they don’t necessarily involve us.

To help you mitigate any potential problems, here are some of our top tips on dealing with unconscious bias at work:

 

Take a step back – Firstly, it’s always important not to make any knee jerk decisions. Think objectively about an incident you think involves unconscious bias – and gather any evidence you may need to take the issue further. Also, try to think whether this incident could be a manifestation of your own biases (such as the Horns effect), which may be clouding your judgement.

 

Talk to others in the team – If you still have concern, it sometimes helps to approach a close team member (or maybe your line manager) to discuss the issue in more detail. Although it won’t always be possible, they may have similar concerns themselves, which could help process your thoughts. Or they may be able to help explain the situation more objectively, which could help add context to what happend.

 

Approach your HR team – Your HR team is a great resource when it comes to unconscious bias. They’ll be able to help talk you through any potential next steps in a calm and confidential setting. Or even just provide a sounding board if you aren’t quite sure whether the situation warrants something more formal. 


Talk to the person involved
– One of the main takeaways from unconscious bias is that many of us won’t even be aware we’re doing it. If there has been an instance which may have upset you, try talking to the person involved to let them know how you feel. This could go a long way to ensuring a similar incident doesn’t happen in the future.  

 

What should companies do to deal with unconscious bias 

There are lots of ways companies can help protect against any negative effects associated with unconscious bias.

Ways businesses could help include:

 

  • Offering unconscious bias training to all of their employees
  • Adopting ‘blind recruitment’ ideas – such as not looking at names on CVs before reading them
  • Writing gender-neutral job ads (or using decoders to see how your own ads stack up) 
  • Basing hiring decisions on data, rather than personal opinions
  • Employing a more diverse workforce, through diverse shortlisting
  • Signpost information to help combat people’s preconceptions – as well as things like your company’s equality and diversity policy

 

 

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