The purpose of this blog on Unconscious Bias (UB) is to break down UB in its simplest form in order to bring about awareness that it exists and how we can reduce it, especially in the workplace. There are various studies out there about UB for greater, more in-depth look, and several organisations are offering training. It is up to the individual reading this blog to dig a bit deeper if it is their desire to learn how to tackle UB in their workplace.
A Note: Whilst this blog focused on UB with regards to racial diversity, please be aware that UB impacts many other areas.
What is Unconscious Bias
Unconscious Bias can occur (according to one definition) where individuals socially stereotype certain groups of people, outside their own conscious awareness. UB is a lot more prevalent than conscious prejudice and is a lot harder to spot- it being unconscious and all.
UB also materialises where people look more favourably on an individual or groups of people who look and sound like them or share their values. This could potentially lead to discrimination.
We all have biases based on our learned experiences and social categorisation around ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, background, education and even beauty. They are usually unintentional but are embedded in our belief systems and have the ability to affect our behaviours. Our brains are built to prejudge situations and people to determine if they are friendly or hostile. We all do it daily. We see someone coming down the road towards us and depending on how they look or walk we decide to cross the road to the other side. We unconsciously decide the other person may pose a danger to us. This is not a bad thing, our brains are built for survival, however, when it is a safe environment, our unconscious bias can have a negative impact.
Key points to remember
~ It’s natural.
~ It’s unintended.
~ It can affect decisions. It can be mitigated.
Factors that can lead to UB in the Workplace (there are many more)
Visual social identity: This is forming a stereotype based on someone’s gender, race, age and other social categories.
Appearance: Yes, believe it or not, the way someone dresses could lead an individual to form a bias against them. Individuals can have UB against tattoos, hair texture and colour, weight and piercings.
Accent: This is probably one of the biggest areas for bias especially in interviews where one’s accent results in an assumption of lower intellect or whether or not that person would fit into the culture of an organisation.
CV/Application Form: All manner of presumptions are made based on the information on a CV or application form. These unconscious assumptions will undoubtedly influence appointment decisions.
Types of Unconscious Biases (there are many more)
Affinity bias – the tendency to ‘warm up’ to people who have the same characteristics as yourself.
Halo effect – the tendency to think that everything about a person is good simply because you like them.
Perception bias – the tendency to believe one thing about a group of people based on stereotypes and assumptions, making it impossible to be objective about individuals.
Confirmation bias – the tendency to seek to confirm your pre-existing ideas and assumptions about a group of people whether or not they are correct.
Group think – the tendency to try too hard to fit into an existing culture, mimicking others and holding back thoughts or opinions, resulting in the loss of identity, creativity and innovation of an individual or within the group.
How it can manifest in the workplace
This list is not by any way exhaustive and you can find many more areas that UB can manifest.
Promotion – There is a strong possibility that UB influences the decisions around promotion for individuals, especially from an ethnic minority background. I have personally been a victim of UB in the workplace. I was told once by a manager that if I wanted to be promoted within the company I needed to look and sound more like my colleagues, all of whom were white British at the time. My fate was already decided just by the colour of my skin and my accent.
Recruitment – Unfortunately, there are studies for and against the idea that UB can influence recruitment so the pendulum is still swinging on this one. However, I have also seen this in the workplace. When I first came into this country I applied for several roles in a few banks as my background was in banking and my latest role was the deputy branch manager for the largest bank in my country. So I was quite confident in my ability to work in a bank in the UK. I was shortlisted for interview for 3 roles, 2 of which were for cashiers as I didn’t mind starting over; however, I was asked to submit a profile picture before interview. I then didn’t hear back from them regarding the interview process and when I asked for an explanation I was told they had too many applications: but I was already shortlisted for interview. I then realised I was shortlisted because I had a ‘white sounding’ name and then they saw I was black.
I have also seen this in places I have worked where leaders made decisions on recruitment that were inexplicable and when challenged, resorted to ‘gut feeling’. One way to get around this is by what some call name-blinding; that is, removing all the identifiable characteristics from the application for shortlisting.
Performance Management (PM) – Again, the verdict is still out on this as there is still little evidence available to support this, however, again I can speak from experience when I say that this happens in workplaces more than people care to admit.
I have sat in PM meetings and have been constantly compared to white colleagues even when their performance was below mine (evidenced by the targets and results at the time) because not only was I the only female manager but I was also the only black manager at the table.
I have also seen this happen in schools and have heard it from other colleagues in leadership.
How can we tackle UB in our workplace?
Acceptance: First we need to accept that we all have UB and so it is very likely in the workplace. Awareness: Then we need to raise others awareness to UB and its effects.
Step back: It is more likely for UB to influence decisions that are made in the spur of the moment. Take time to consider the facts and all the other elements before making a decision.
Look at your structure: Consider your organisational structure, do you have diversity from top to bottom? Are your BAME staff just occupying the lowest positions and if so, why?
Consider lived experiences: Talk to your BAME staff, consider how they are feeling, why they feel that way and how you can support them. You may learn a few things!
Review your policies: Do any of your people policies consider diversity? and I’m not talking about the one line that the DfE requires of you. I mean properly addresses your intentions around diversity. If not, change them. Do your other policies give equal opportunities to all staff?
Monitor you own behaviours: Think about how you act/react to people and how you manage first impressions.
Don’t overlook the protected bias related characteristics: You must remember that there are diversity related characteristics that you must take into consideration when making decisions.
Expand your social circles: Eat lunch with other groups of people sometimes, you may be surprised. Avoid making assumptions: Don’t assume based on what you think you know; have a conversation
with the other person.
Speak out: If you see UB in action, speak out against it. I had to do that a few times as it was becoming an issue in the recruitment process. I then rewrote the recruitment policy to specifically eliminate the possibility of UB influencing the process. It took some time but it worked.
Apologise if you get it wrong: We all get it wrong! Just hold your hands up and say sorry. Trust me, it will stop a lot of claims and social disruptions in the workplace and improve the harmony that is meant to be culturally embedded.
Look, I’m in no way saying that UB awareness is the answer to issues of inequality in the workplace. Far from it, but if we recognise that this is embedded in our culture and seek to change this, we are one step closer to really seeing people for who they are and what they can bring to our organisations and not just what they look like. UB awareness will not stomp out racism or any other bias but it will give you the assurance that you are taking a small first step on the road to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in your workplace.
Again, as I said before, there are lots of resources out there on improving diversity in the workplace. Be very weary of the training offered as there is no evidence that training helps. There was a study published by the Guardian newspaper that highlighted that UB training, if not carried out properly, could lead to even more issues; as people become more aware of UB, these may then lead to very conscious biases as they now lean heavily the other side.
Talk to leadership- get diversity on the meeting agenda
Talk to experts – consider those leading the way and seek support
Check out websites such as some of those listed below
Consider if and where work is needed and form a working party for resource group to figure
out how it will be done.
Do your part, we need you.
Resources available on these sites:
https://educationalequityservices.com https://www.enei.org.uk/diversity-inclusion https://www.bameednetwork.com/resources-database https://theblackcurriculum.com
Some definitions and expressions have been adopted from various articles.
Sandy Tomlinson, Freelance School & Academy Operations & Finance CEO – Fairfield M&S Consultancy Ltd
2 thoughts on “Unconscious bias: Is it real and is it a problem in the workplace? – by Sandy Tomlinson”
Your blog is very informative keep sharing your knowledge we are with you 🙂
Love your honestly Sandy. I’ve had feedback from previous job applications one of which advised me to change my name to a more English sounding name. Be proud of your background 👍