Understanding unconscious bias in the workplace

Wednesday August 19, 2020

Since the protests inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, the most popular training course for businesses has been “unconscious bias”. There is a compelling business reason for this. There have been many studies that demonstrate that a diverse mix of people within a business brings the best results, and results matter.

From an early age, each of us has been programmed to have stereotypical thoughts by our own parents’ beliefs, schooling and media images. Often, when questioned, we would challenge these. However, life is so busy and we don’t have time to question ourselves. Most of us do not really believe that we hold strong prejudices about any group or sector – but we probably do.

Examples of unconscious bias

Think of the road sign depicting elderly people: stooped with a walking stick. That image is strongly placed into your brain.

Then, during this pandemic, where unfortunately obese people are at higher risk of serious complications, the media images are of obese people who were sitting or moving slowly around. All reinforcing simplified perceptions that obesity is solely caused by laziness, eating junk food and lack of exercise, with no mention of medical conditions that could be the underlying cause.

There are sayings that are still around like: don’t trust someone who does not look you in the eye. In some cultures, however, looking someone in the eye would be disrespectful.

We all, quite naturally, feel more at ease with people like us. Based on the characteristics of those in our “group”, subtle prejudices can form against those who we do not see as being in our group.  In America, it was shown that interviewers sat further away in an interview from black applicants despite the candidates having equal ability on their application forms. So although the Equality Act gives protection to nine different characteristics, prejudice and discrimination remain.

The moment a candidate walks into the room, your mind will be making judgements about their appearance, their colour, their voice and their dress among other things. Until we challenge our unconscious bias, there is no way we can be sure the interview can produce truly the best candidate.

We all subconsciously credit applicants with traits similar to our own, or who share our strengths. This halo effect is well recognised, but of course it often leads to disappointing results.

Unconscious bias eLearning courses

Understanding our own unconscious bias is an excellent starting point. There are many free online tests which will help managers start to comprehend this complex area, and set them on a path to building a diverse, fairer and more profitable workplace.

And if you want to take it to the next level and start properly upskilling in this area, please ask us about our own unconscious bias eLearning courses for staff and managers.

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