Unconscious bias in the workplace: how it’s defined and how to stop it

Unconscious bias in the workplace: how it’s defined and how to stop it

Rachael Wilson is Managing Director at EW Group and has helped businesses from a wide range of industries to improve their staff engagement and customer satisfaction, to innovate and win new clients, to attract and retain the best talent, and to drive genuine cultural change.

Four employees sat around a table

If you want to increase equality, diversity, and inclusion within your workforces, you may have heard of what is increasingly being seen as a crucial reason why diverse groups of people have different lived professional experiences: unconscious bias in the workplace.

In this guide, we take an in-depth look into what unconscious bias is, where it comes from, and how it affects workplaces, then show you exactly how you can stop it from having a negative effect on your workplace.

What is unconscious bias? A simple definition
What causes unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias in the workplace – how does it affect people?
How can we combat unconscious bias in the workplace?
Unconscious bias in the workplace resources

Stop unconscious bias from harming your workplace.

What is unconscious bias? A simple definition

Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, is what happens when we act on subconscious, deeply ingrained biases, stereotypes, and attitudes formed from our inherent human cognition, experiences, upbringing, and environment.

If you act on your gut instincts, kneejerk reactions, or assumptions, there’s a chance you’re opening yourself up to unconscious bias. This can mean people affected by your actions might be unfairly discriminated against or favoured without you even realising, even if you don’t believe in stereotypes. It might be in the form of unconscious gender or racial bias, or a range of other types of bias.

Unconscious biases are different to conscious, or explicit, biases, which are intentionally discriminative. We are fully aware of these and how they influence our decision making, which is why they’re outlawed in the workplace by laws like the Equality Act 2010.

What causes unconscious bias?

People are naturally biased. Even when we intend to be completely fair, our brains have a hard time remaining impartial.

Some research, such as that by social cognition researcher Gordon Moskowitz, indicates our brains naturally use bias to subconsciously pursue our goals.

Other studies, such as Perry Hinton’s 2017 work, state that it is due to our inherent social cognition skills; that unconscious biases are the mind’s way of automatically making associations between two concepts.

Looked at this way, they’re helpful mental shortcuts, allowing us to process information faster through prediction. It’s for this reason we instinctively place people into categories using criteria such as skin colour, weight, age, gender, accent, education, sexuality, or status.

This categorising saves our brain the time and effort of absorbing and processing information, letting us use our mental resources elsewhere.

Sadly, the same process can also affect our behaviour in undesirable ways, preventing us acting in our own best interests or those of the group. Categorising people can lead us to make untrue assumptions about them which make us treat them differently. At best this can cause strained relationships, at worst, injustices.

For businesses, there’s a clear reason to challenge unconscious bias: if we act on or experience unconscious bias in the workplace, as well as the negatives above, it also means that we are prevented from acting in the best interests of the business.

Is unconscious bias scientifically proven?

Unconscious bias is proven – in functional magnetic resonance imaging scans, studies of Black and Caucasian individuals, and investigations into neural responses.

Explore the research backing unconscious bias in our guide.

Trainer delivering to a team

Unconscious bias in the workplace – how does it affect people?

Research into unconscious bias in the workplace that has shown time and again that none of us is immune to it. It comes in many scientific forms – for examples and the research backing them, see our guide on the different types of unconscious bias.

So, back in the office, how does implicit bias work?

Implicit gender bias in the workplace

In a 2012 study of an academic recruitment process, a CV was considered by different recruiting managers. The CV was identical except for the fact that one had the name John at the top and the other had the name Jennifer. The managers – men and women – overwhelmingly decided to offer the job to John. They also were happy paying him a higher average starting salary and were more likely to mentor him. That’s despite Jennifer’s CV being identical.

Research published in the European Journal of Finance in 2016 also showed that professional financial advisors with millionaire clients gave biased advice because – unconsciously – they considered female investors to be less knowledgeable about investments than men and to have less control over their investment portfolios. This was true regardless of the gender of the advisor.

This astonishing bias against high wealth individuals by members of their own gender demonstrates one of the great truths about unconscious bias; we all have it whether we acknowledge it or not, because it’s a natural human trait that is created by the world around us.

Unconscious racial bias

Similar research from 2017 to the 2014 Stanford study showed that the same was true for names. In this instance, African American and Asian applicants who masked their name were more likely to get interviews than those that did not.

And in a 2004 study, when Caucasian people were shown Black or White faces the part of their brains primarily associated with emotional processes activated more when Black faces appeared, indicating a negative emotional response.

Unconscious stereotyping of status

Class and status are also affected. Research by the Social Mobility Commission in 2016 showed that you’re more likely to get offered a job as a man if you are wearing black shoes over brown ones to an interview. This is because black shoes have a historical association with professional roles and a higher social class. Most of us would never hold this as a conscious belief but somehow it still impacts our decision-making.

How can we combat unconscious bias in the workplace?

Fortunately, there is a lot we can do to combat unconscious bias in the workplace.

Accept unconscious bias exists and question assumptions

When EW Group trains individuals on how to challenge unconscious bias at work, the first step is to acknowledge that unconscious bias exists and that we all have preconceptions about people which we cannot control.

When you ask most people to justify a decision or choice they made, they will have an explanation, but it’s often not the whole truth. All of us are trained to rationalise decisions that have been made by our subconscious without any logical input, even if they are at odds with our conscious beliefs. Few people get out of bed in the morning planning to treat people unfairly or unequally, but the results of numerous scientific studies prove that we do.

That means, to overcome the bias that’s built-in to our brains, we need to question our beliefs and decisions, even when they ‘feel’ right.

Slow down your decision-making

You are most susceptible to making a biased decision when you are interacting with other people. In any conversation with your direct reports or colleagues, you are at risk of making assumptions, jumping to conclusions, or reverting to your gut instincts.

One of the interesting things about unconscious bias at work is that if you’re interacting with other people and you’re also under pressure, then the likelihood of being governed by your biases increases.

We can process around 40 things per second consciously – this rises to 11 million unconsciously. If you’re having to fill in the blanks due to lack of information, or at the other extreme, you have information overload then again, the impact of bias is more pronounced.

Combat bias in processes and strategies

Changing the way your workplace operates is a sure-fire way to ensure unconscious biases aren’t able to affect staff or anyone interacting with the business, such as applicants or customers.

It involves analysing all the different steps of your processes and plans. In doing so, you can work out how bias might infiltrate actions, such as decision making or day-to-day work, and how they will likely affect people.

From there, you can gold-plate your business’ approach to ensure it’s free from bias. That might mean blind recruitment processes, gender-neutral job ads, training your staff, and making your workforce more representative.

View our guide on Seven steps to inclusive recruitment in the workplace for an example of how to combat office implicit bias.

Unconscious bias in the workplace resources

There are a whole host of resources on our site to help you combat unconscious bias in the workplace:

  • Watch this Tedxtalk to find out more about unconscious bias from Inclusion Consultant Helen Turnbull.

Unconscious bias has the potential to seriously affect the way companies work, but there are plenty of actions you can start doing today to stop it from taking hold in your place of work. Contact our experts today to find out how we can help.

Talk to our experts about tackling unconscious bias in your workplace.

Rachael Wilson has led EW Group for almost a decade. She has designed and delivered sessions for senior leaders at Merck Pharmaceutical (Germany), adidas (Italy), Computershare (USA) and British Land Plc (UK). Rachael’s interest lies in bringing narrative and storytelling to the fore both in the design of diversity strategy and in driving inclusive behaviours. In addition to working collaboratively with clients, Rachael is responsible for the growth and development of our 50-strong consulting team who are central to all EW Group activity.

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