Understanding & Tackling Unconscious Bias

about 4 years ago by Sarah Prasad
Colourful Brain 770 X 461

​A recent UN report found that 90% of people across the globe are biased against women, with 25% in the UK saying they thought men should have more right to a job than a woman and that men were better business executives.

If there was ever a time to talk about discrimination and bias, it’s now and we did just that our our recent HR Leadership Forum in Glasgow, kindly hosted by JP Morgan.

We cannot simply turn a blind eye to this situation, we need to take action to help shift mindsets and encourage the power of diverse workforces and the creation of an equal world.

Conscious vs. Unconscious Bias

Before we dive into how to address bias in the workplace, it is helpful to sign post that biases; can be held at an individual, group or organisational level, can have negative or positive consequences and they can be conscious (i.e. fully, aware, intentional and responsive) or unconscious (i.e. unaware or doing performing something without realising).

Root Causes of Bias

“We’re Not Bad. We’re Human”

Our brains process 400 billion bits of information every single second, yet we’re only aware of 2,000 of these. As such, we must make decisions quickly on the type of information to process and how we react to this input.

Our past experiences, peer groups and environments influence how we process this information and, unfortunately, this often applies to how we view or interact with others.

Unconscious bias happens within the billions of data our brain automatically processes without our recognition. We often don’t know we are biased against a specific group of people and as a result, aren’t aware that we’ve treated them differently.

Harvard’s Implicit Association Test helps reveal some of these unconscious biases and offers a useful tool for starting to recognise these underlying, unconscious thoughts.

How Can We Address Bias in the Workplace?

A key point of discussion at our HR Leadership Forum was that there certainly isn’t one silver bullet for addressing unconscious bias. However, we agreed that we need to start somewhere to shift the dial and this will be different for depending on your organisation.

For example research shows that 93% of employers are taking action to close the gender pay gap.  But do these initiatives and programmes actually work?

Targets & Initiatives

Many workplaces and modern organisations have set diversity targets, (e.g. the UK Civil Service has a target that by 2025 13.2% of new recruits to the Senior Civil Service are from an ethnic minority background, and 11.3% will be disabled).

Whilst diversity targets can push doors open for under-represented groups, the effectiveness of these initiatives is questionable and continues to be debated even amongst D&I experts.

On the one hand, diversity targets seek to make diversity the new ‘norm’ and incorporate new and different perspectives (obviously a good thing). Companies can also feel good about themselves as they’ve achieved their target, ticked more boxes and have the data to show that they’re a diverse workforce.

However, on the other hand, these same targets can make employees feel uncomfortable, even to the point where companies lose good talent as a result. Employees may feel that since they sit in a certain demographic, they won’t be considered, despite their skills and contributions, or they may feel ‘tokenised’ – even if they’ve worked hard to get there, it’ll be easy for other people to say they only received the promotion to meet the diversity target.

Ultimately, we have to consider whether diversity targets actually shift mindsets and behaviours. Do they address the actual barriers to equality? Perhaps if our places of work are forced to become more diverse, at all levels, it will shift our thinking around the value of ‘difference’ and inclusivity?

Training on Unconscious Bias

Many businesses and corporations are also choosing to invest in diversity training. Google reportedly spent $114 million on its diversity programme in 2014. However, despite this sizable investment, recent diversity reports show that little has changed within the organisation.

Unconscious Bias and diversity training can only work if, what follows, is a conscious change in behaviours and actions. Simply making someone aware of their biases doesn’t automatically mean they’ll change their behaviour. Solely investing in diversity training, as highlighted in CIPD’s Diversity Management that Works, doesn’t shift the needle enough to make a sustained impact.

Determining “Cultural Fitness”

According to a Robert Walters study, 90% of employers say it’s essential to find candidates who are a good cultural fit.

But what exactly does ‘cultural fitness’ mean?

Without specific parameters and a clear definition, teams and organisations can easily fall into the trap of only hiring people who they perceive to be ‘like’ them (e.g. In-group bias – unfair favouring of someone perceived to be from one’s own ‘group’)

The recruitment process often lacks quantitative ways of measuring if someone would be a good fit. Most hiring decisions are based on snap judgements and perceived personality traits, making it mainly a subjective choice.

To recruit a diverse workforce, employers need to think very carefully about their recruitment process and who’s involved. We spent some time at our HR Leadership Forum discussing the recruitment process and whilst there isn’t a ‘quick fix’, taking measures such as, using gender-neutral inclusive language in job descriptions and job ads, ensuring you have multiple interviewers, ideally from a range of disciplines and backgrounds and avoid having one person responsible for the hiring decision, were amongst some simple ideas.

However, a key point raised by one of our delegates during this discussion, is when considering someone’s ‘cultural fitness’, base that consideration on values rather than assumed personality traits. Understanding your organisational values and how these manifest in day to day behaviours and using these as benchmarks for gauging ‘cultural fitness’ could help you to recruit a diverse workforce as well as, find employees who are actually a good match for your organisation.

6 Ways to Start Tackling Bias Today

1. Examine your recruitment process. Look at your recruitment process and identify ways to reduce bias
2. Focus on your company’s culture & values. Walking the talk when it comes to your organisations’ culture and values can help to remove barriers.
3. Prioritise mental wellbeing. It’s essential for mental wellbeing that all employees feel like they belong to something and are accepted as who they are.
4. Call it out. Many people lack an awareness of what’s okay to say and what is not, so we all need to stand up and call out inappropriate language and actions. Tell people when something makes you uncomfortable, so we can all understand each other’s perspectives and feel included.
5. Create conversations. We need to continue talking about the important subject of diversity and ways to address the situation. Conversations need to be open and accessible to everyone.
6. Ask honest questions. It’s okay to ask really honest questions and create ways for others to share their perspectives. Only through sharing our views and keeping the conversation going can we make an impact.

No Silver Bullet to Addressing Diversity & Inclusion

When it comes to making our workplaces more diverse and shifting mindsets to create greater inclusivity, there isn’t a silver bullet or one perfect formula. However, what if we all just started somewhere, no matter how small, with an approach relevant and appropriate to our own organisations and kept trying new ways to address the issue? Maybe our combined efforts could really turn up the dial towards diversity and inclusion simply becoming the new norm.

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