As companies continue to strive for D,E&I excellence in fulfilling their moral obligations to staff and attracting the best candidates, one key component to ensuring that complete fairness and impartiality are achieved is recognising and addressing Unconscious Bias issues. This can be vital from the interview stage to general workplace relationships and define company culture and affect productivity and business success.
However, as the name suggests, Unconscious Bias is usually something we do without realising it, so how should organisations tackle the problem?
What is Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious Bias can be defined as preferences or social stereotyping that individuals form outside of their conscious awareness. Most people hold unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups. These biases stem from a human tendency to organise social worlds by categorising things like gender, race, religion, sexual preference, or body shape.
An example of this in practice could be the bias shown while hiring a new employee. If the interview panel comprises only men, they may favour male candidates over female candidates even though they have the same skills and job experience. This is often due to a type of Unconscious Bias known as Affinity Bias, where people have an inclination to think someone more similar to themselves would be better at a particular role or task.
Equally, this can also be seen with existing employees when a line manager always chooses specific individuals who are most similar to themselves for special projects or events.
Why is it a problem for businesses?
Apart from the apparent wrongs associated with prejudice, there are also several reasons that Unconscious Bias can affect a company's performance. For instance, hiring people similar to each other or only asking like-minded people to work on a task will give a business a less diverse team with similar life experiences. Where all individuals similarly approach their work, it can hamper opportunities for critique and creativity, thus reducing a team's ability to problem-solve.
In addition, talented candidates at the interview stage may be overlooked purely based on Unconscious Bias. A business may miss out on hiring the best people because the interviewer is unaware of their Affinity Bias.
Finally, managers may subconsciously form better working relationships with employees whom they feel an affinity with, putting them forward for promotions and making for a more friendly and relaxed working environment for these individuals. Conversely, those they feel less aligned with but still competent in their role are likely to be treated more harshly at appraisals, and they may find that the work environment feels more corporate and colder. This can be a problem for retention as good staff may be more inclined to leave a company where they think they don't 'fit in' or have a noticeable culture of favouritism.
How to address the problem?
As part of their D,E&I strategies, many companies have encouraged employees to undertake Unconscious Bias training to be more self-aware. The idea is that self-awareness allows individuals to make more informed decisions, not just based on their gut reactions. Instead, employees are encouraged to challenge themselves to consider what would be best for the company. They can then create a more diverse hiring strategy and a more inclusive working environment where staff can feel valued and empowered.
However, it is worth noting that some companies have recently reported that while Unconscious Bias training raises awareness, it is not always seen to filter through as behavioural change in the workplace. Research has also found that for some people, once they are told that everyone has unconscious biases, they relax in the knowledge that they are not alone and that this can create an unhelpful 'norm' for stereotyping, which can make the problem worse.
In a recent interview, professor Dr Grace Lordan from the London School of Economics (LSE) even described Unconscious Bias training as 'entirely ineffective'.
Organisations are now looking at more tangible, longer-term strategies to address Unconscious Bias in the workplace, such as revising recruitment processes, avoiding using stereotypical language in job adverts, reviewing gender pay gaps, and providing mentoring opportunities to underrepresented groups within a business. The hope is that this will help to ensure that what is learned during training sessions is more effectively implemented in real-life situations.
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