Addressing the elephant: Unconscious bias in the workplace

You’ve likely heard the term ‘unconscious bias’ – it’s become an important topic in the area of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, particularly as notable tech companies such as Google and Facebook make headlines in their attempts to address it. Organisations are now increasingly aware of the potential negative effect unconscious bias can have on revenue, productivity and talent – and as a result many are now including unconscious bias training and workshops as part of their HR strategies.

Until recently, the missing piece of the unconscious bias jigsaw has always been what, exactly, can we to advise people to do about it? After all, unconscious bias is by its very definition not consciously detected, and so not easily open to introspection. Research has emerged to show that giving people better cognitive strategies not only reduces unconscious bias, but that bias levels continue to fall after intervention. This work, and a recent review of the wider literature, has given rise to some very practical and research-led ideas on mitigating the effects of unconscious bias.

Here are a selection of things we can all do to help reduce our bias and the effect it can have on your business:

1) Get tested: In order to effectively tackle our unconscious biases, it helps to know which social groups we may have such bias towards or against. Unconscious bias can be measured using an Implicit Association Test, such as Hogrefe’s Implicitly

2) Slow down: Allow time for the conscious brain to engage. Delay making key decisions about people to a time when you are able to give full consideration, and then take the time to challenge the decisions you do make.

3) Avoid emotional triggers: When we’re tired, stressed or have other emotionally-draining work to carry out, we are more susceptible to our biases. Think about how you schedule any work which involves making decisions about people.

4) Get a critical friend: Asking someone to get you to explain or justify your decisions to them will make them fairer (or do it in the mirror – that works too!). If we know that our decisions are unlikely to be challenged, we tend to be more biased.

5) Don’t be afraid to ask: Biases struggle to keep their hold on us when we see people as individuals, so endeavour to learn more about your colleagues. People are rarely offended by being asked a question about their lives and they are more often delighted that you are interested. Make this a two-way street: try to be open to others asking questions about you and your life.

6) Give yourself a break: Don’t beat yourself up about the fact that you have biases. We all have them. Feeling bad (emotional load) can make it more difficult to manage any biases you do have. Give yourself a break and relax.

Organisations can be trained to use Implicitly to identify and address bias in their organisations – and to use those results in a useful and ethical manner, raising awareness and, with time and training, conscious action. You can find more information on Implicitly on the Hogrefe website, including upcoming training dates.

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