What is Unconscious Bias in the Workplace? The Everyone Guide

What is Unconscious Bias in the Workplace? The Everyone Guide


This is the first in a series of blogs that tackle the big topics around diversity and inclusion, head on. We start with unconscious bias in the workplace; what it is, where it comes from and what you can do about it.
If you know you need help tackling unconscious bias in the workplace jump straight to our unconscious bias training section or see how to avoid bias in recruitment and selection.


What do we mean by unconscious bias?

In layperson’s terms, unconscious bias might also be described as ‘going on gut instinct’, ‘having a kneejerk reaction’ or ‘making assumptions’.


Where does unconscious bias come from?

People are naturally biased and even when you intend to be completely fair, your brain has a hard time remaining impartial. Cognitive or unconscious biases are the mind’s way of making associations between two concepts automatically and can be helpful mental shortcuts, allowing us to process information rapidly.

We instinctively place people into categories using criteria like skin colour, weight, age, gender, accent, level of education, sexuality or social status. This categorising saves our brain the time and effort of absorbing and processing information, allowing us to use our mental resources for other tasks.

Unfortunately, the same process can also affect our behaviour in undesirable ways and prevents us acting in our own best interests. When we experience unconscious bias in the workplace it also means that we are also prevented from acting in the best interests of the business.

Categorising people can lead us to make assumptions about them that may well not be true and treat them differently based on those biases. Even if we don’t consciously believe in stereotypes, our brain has a natural tendency to rely on them.


Is unconscious bias scientifically proven?

We are asking our brains to process millions of different bits of information in any given day, but we can only consciously process about 40 pieces of information every few minutes. So the brain has to create short cuts, which we use subconsciously.

The part of the brain responsible for creating these mental shortcuts is called the Amygdala. The Amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe. Shown to play a key role in the processing of emotions, the amygdala forms part of the limbic system. This is also the part of our brain that detects and responds to fear and danger.


How does my brain know which shortcuts to take?

Our mental shortcuts are guided by the patterns we see in the world around us. We’re influenced by our upbringing, our friends, our education, our past experiences, the media and so on. These are our sources of influence and they affect how we feel about and react to different people. Our unconscious shortcuts are therefore shaped by the world around us and don’t always align with our conscious beliefs.


I bet you’re thinking ‘I’m sure I’m not biased’

There has been lots of research into bias in the workplace that has shown time and again that none of us is immune to it. It’s been shown to affect how we recruit people, how we give people feedback and how salary negotiations play out.

In one study of a 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 overwhelming decided to offer the job to John. They would pay him a higher starting salary on average and be more likely to mentor him. Despite having an identical CV to Jennifer.

What’s more, it didn’t make any difference whether the hiring manager was a man or a woman: they still displayed the same bias towards John.

The same study has been repeated using ethnically diverse sounding names alongside white Western names. Those with the Anglo-sounding names were shown to be more likely to get a call back for a second interview.

Research in London has shown 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.

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.

Getting very specific, research published in the European Journal of Finance in 2016 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. Check out our post on Why high status is no protection against unconscious bias at work.

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.


How does implicit bias affect me at work?

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. 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.


How can we combat unconscious bias in the workplace?

Fortunately, there is a lot we can do to combat unconscious bias. 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. We are trained to rationalise decisions that have actually been made by our subconscious without any logical input. In order to overcome the bias that’s built-in to our brain, we need to question our beliefs and decisions, even when they ‘feel’ right.

Bias is different for all of us but is often completely at odds with our conscious beliefs. I doubt many of you 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.

Of course, over the years there have been sceptics such as clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson, who questioned the concept of unconscious bias. You can read more about this debate and our response to it in our CEO, Jane Farrell’s blog ‘Jordan Peterson and the unconscious bias debate.’

The only effective way to override unconscious bias in the workplace is by continually questioning the assumptions you are making about others based on how they look, who they are and how they present themselves. Check out our recruitment and selection training for proven strategies to address unconscious bias at work.

The benefits of an inclusive workplace are many; enhanced creativity and innovation, higher levels of productivity from a culturally diverse workforce, all of whom bring something different and enriching to the table.


Unconscious bias in the workplace resources

– For an audio guide on Unconscious Bias listen to our Podcast Series 2, Episode 4
– Check out our bespoke and customisable unconscious bias training programmes and our unconscious bias in recruitment and selection training
– In our 5 Steps to Inclusive Recruitment, Teresa Norman shares her thoughts on how to attract diverse talent from the job description to interview.
– Read how we helped these clients tackle unconscious bias in the workplace, Dounray, BBC and The Metropolitan Police Service
– See our award-winning partnership with Harvey Nash, developing a bespoke e-learning programme to mitigate unconscious bias at work and develop inclusive teams
– Watch this Tedx talk to find out more about unconscious bias from Inclusion Consultant Helen Turnbull.

Find out how more about tackling unconscious bias in your workplace.

Rachael Wilson is the Managing Director of EW Group. Rachael has a natural flair for expertly pinpointing the sources organisations need to successfully design and deliver their business case for diversity. Rachael supports businesses across a variety of industries to enhance staff engagement, boost customer satisfaction, innovate, win new clients, attract and retain the best talent and drive genuine cultural change. With a keen eye for emerging industry trends, Rachael ensures EW Group's work is firmly on the map both in the UK and globally. Sign up to EW Group's monthly e-newsletter for industry updates, business case studies, exclusive event invites and more!

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