Understanding Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Agnes Yeboah

There has been an increase in interest and importance given to topics like unconscious bias, diversity, equity and inclusion, psychological safety, quiet quitting and other social matters.

This can be attributed to several interconnected factors, such as social awareness and activism, workplace dynamics, consumer expectations, social media, technology and globalisation.

Movements like ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Me Too’, and others have raised awareness of systemic inequalities and injustices, and have further emphasised the need for addressing unconscious biases and promoting inclusive practices in all areas of society, including workplaces.

Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, refers to attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.

These biases are involuntarily formed and often result from societal conditioning and personal experiences.
While these biases can be positive or negative, they frequently perpetuate stereotypes and contribute to systemic inequality.

Unconscious bias occurs when our brains make quick judgements and assessments of people and situations to process an overwhelming amount of information quickly.

Against the background of evolution, this was a survival mechanism, helping us to quickly distinguish between friend and foe.

In modern society, this categorisation manifests as biases based on race, social class, gender, age, religion, level of education and other social categories.

These biases are further reinforced by cultural norms, media representations, and how we are socialised, making them deeply ingrained and challenging to eradicate.

In organisations, unconscious bias could have profound implications, because it influences processes such as recruitment, performance evaluations, promotions and virtually everyday workplace interactions.

Often, hiring managers may unconsciously favour candidates who are like them in terms of background, interests, or experiences.

This ‘similarity bias’ can lead to a lack of diversity in the workplace.

Stereotypes can affect how managers perceive and evaluate the performance of employees.

For instance, women may be judged more harshly than men for the same behaviour, or younger employees may be overlooked for leadership roles due to stereotypical assumptions about their capabilities.

Similarly, individuals with disabilities could be completely overlooked for job opportunities stemming from assumptions about their competence and ability.

Additionally, bias could influence who gets promoted and who doesn’t.

Employees who conform or mirror the stereotypical image of a leader in that respective context may be more likely to be promoted than equally or more qualified candidates who do not fit this image.

Unconscious bias could affect day-to-day interactions between colleagues, or managers and employees, leading to microaggression – subtle, often unintentional, discriminatory comments or behaviours that break down collaboration in the work environment.

These instances could create a toxic work environment for those on the receiving end.
While unconscious bias are deeply engrained, there are several tactics organisations and individuals alike could implement to mitigate their impact.

Firstly, educating employees about unconscious bias is crucial.

Awareness training could help individuals recognise their own bias and understand how this impacts their behaviour and decision-making processes.

Second to that, it is essential that structured and standardised processes are implemented for recruitment and selection, performance evaluation, and promotion to reduce the impact of bias.

For instance, using blind recruitment techniques, where identifying information is removed from applications, could help ensure that candidates are evaluated based on their skills and qualifications alone.

Additionally, having diverse panels for hiring and promotion decisions could help counteract individual bias, because a diverse group is more likely to challenge biased thinking and make more equitable decisions.

Fostering an inclusive workplace culture where diversity is valued and respected could help mitigate the effects of unconscious bias.

This includes promoting open dialogue about bias and providing support for those who experience the negative impact of implicit bias.

It is equally important to hold managers and employees accountable for biased behaviour.

This can involve setting diversity and inclusion goals, monitoring progress, and taking corrective action where necessary.

Lastly, encouraging regular feedback and self-reflection could help individuals become more aware of their biased behaviour, which in turn would reduce biased decision-making.

Addressing unconscious bias is an ongoing process that requires commitment and effort at both individual and organisational levels.

By recognising and actively working to mitigate these biases, organisations would create more equitable and inclusive workplaces where all employees could thrive and contribute valuably to achieving organisational goals.

  • Agnes Yeboah is Capricorn Group’s head of talent investment.

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