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Unconscious bias at work: 3 ways you’re being biased, and 6 things you can do about it.

Diversity is critical to organisational success, but creating an environment where people from all backgrounds feel welcome and included can be difficult. We are all biased – it is an inherent part of being human and there are good evolutionary reasons for it.  We have been hard-wired to make instant judgements to determine whether strangers are friend or foe. Can I eat it or will it eat me?! It’s called “unconscious bias”.

Recent research, using brain imaging scans, has shown unconscious bias in action. Attached to a brain imaging scanner, people were shown images of faces with characteristics different to their own.  The research demonstrated that when shown faces that differed in ethnic origin to themselves, the brain’s “red alert” response to danger, the amygdala, was triggered.  This is the same irrational response we make if suffering from a phobia – for example by seeing a spider running across the floor.  The scans showed the response to take place at such a speed that it was well before the conscious processes engaged.

So, to some extent, this shows that not only are we all pre-disposed to have biases, we also are not aware of them ourselves.  Added to which, most of us don’t want to be and would deny being so. Yet studies show our biases have a real impact in the workplace in terms of our unbalanced treatment of those similar to us as opposed to those who are different.  Some examples are:

1) In meetings, employees will frequently address or maintain eye contact with the most senior man present – even when a woman is speaking, regardless of whether she is the most senior person in the room.


2) In job interviews, white managers tend to spend 25% less time interviewing black candidates than their white counterparts and are less likely to probe “difficult areas” thus denying them the same opportunity to shine.

3) People are more likely to favour people with whom they share characteristics – such as age, race, colour, accent, social or educational background.  This is manifested by engaging in social chit-chat or banter, maintaining eye contact or making assumptions about shared positive traits such as integrity or work ethic.

But don’t despair! There are things that can be done about it. Here are six suggestions for combating unconscious bias in the workplace and creating greater diversity and inclusion:

1) Acknowledge it! It is part of being human, so don’t feel guilty and insist you’re entirely free of prejudice. Accept it and learn to recognise when it’s happening for you. Take an online test to become aware of your biases.

2) Create an environment where it’s okay to get things wrong in terms of diversity and to ask questions – for example “I don’t know the right language to use here, can you help me out?”

3) If you’re involved in hiring, set a standard framework for interviews. For example they will all last a set period of time, and include the same range of questions, regardless of the candidate. Ensure the panel includes people from a range of backgrounds.

4) Review competency frameworks – the criteria against which candidates for vacancies or promotions are measured.  A competency requiring, “quick, decisive action, strength and determination” is more likely to favour a man than a woman while “deep industry knowledge and long-established relationships” is likely to exclude the young.  Take time to review the language you use which should be about selecting the best person rather than perpetuating the status quo.

5) Look at the images used in your organisation. Check your website, brochures, PowerPoint slides, shops or offices. What types of people are you using to promote your business or organisation and what messages do they convey about you? Try to break some stereotypes.

6) Set up diversity and inclusion groups within your organisation and industry – for example a women’s network, an over-60s forum or LGBT group. At a basic level they can provide support for the members, but taken one step further they can be the basis of “reverse mentoring”, where senior managers partner with junior members of a network to allow them to ask questions and gather valuable information about what the various groups need.  The groups themselves can be inclusive by inviting “straight allies” or “old-at-heart partners” to join and create critical mass.

Bitesize Learning Ltd provides diversity training – please contact us on 0845 123 3757 to tell us about your needs.

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