How to eradicate unconscious bias at work

04 July 2019 -

Falling domino stackUnconscious bias is still an issue in the workplace. How can you reduce it?

Workplace bias comes in many forms, but the outcome is always the same: people are unfairly excluded from experiences and opportunities for which they are qualified. Full representation of BAME individuals across the labour market would be worth £24bn a year to the UK economy, according to CMI’s Delivering Diversity research.

The most common type of bias in the workplace is unconscious. It operates at a level below the more obvious, conscious prejudice. It affects our decisions in a much more subtle way, but with significant consequences. For example, when a group of Harvard University researchers studied the performance of cashiers at a French grocery chain, they found that when cashiers from minority backgrounds worked under managers with a high degree of unconscious bias, they took more time between customers, scanned items more slowly, and almost never worked late. When those same cashiers worked with unbiased managers, they were actually 9% faster and more efficient than their coworkers.

Managers can address these discrimination issues by increasing awareness of their unconscious biases, and by developing plans that make the most of the talents and abilities of their team members.

Call out the biases

By naming and discussing various unconscious biases, your organisation can then grapple with how these influence decision-making while hiring, promotions and mentoring.

This can include affinity bias (liking people like us); the halo effect (thinking only good things about a person because we like them); perception bias (stereotyping certain groups without being able to make objective decisions about them); conformity bias (leaning towards the majority viewpoint); and beauty bias (which favours physically attractive people.)

Take a test

Discover your own set of unconscious biases by taking a test like the Implicit Association Test (IAT), created by researchers from Harvard, Virginia and Washington universities. It measures the strength of links you make between concepts, for example race or sexuality, and evaluation of stereotypes, such as whether those concepts are good or bad. The test has its critics, but will give you a chance to reflect on your possible biases, so that you can begin owning them and introduce steps to reduce and eliminate bias from your actions.

Re-organise your systems

Rethink self-evaluations, for example: there are clear differences (both gender and cultural) in an employee’s tendency to self-promote, and these tendencies bias managers’ evaluations.

Try discussing the self-evaluation after you have presented your review as a manager, not before. Widen the net when recruiting – consider setting yourself, and other managers, a goal of interviewing a more diverse slate of candidates.

Ask candidates to remove information such as name, gender and age from their application form to overcome possible unconscious bias. A regular diversity audit of the organization is crucial if you are to eliminate bias in your hiring and promotional processes and pathways.

Choose your words

Declare your intentions about tackling bias and valuing a diverse team. Saying it out loud, or writing it down, sends a clear message to everyone you work with, as well as to your own subconscious. Use language that is clear and non-biased in internal documents, job descriptions and other management practices.

Encourage opt-in

Unconscious bias training for all your team members could work, but be warned: mandatory bias and diversity training almost never works. In fact, it can decrease the proportion of underrepresented groups in management.

In a study of US firms, those that mandated diversity training for managers either saw no movement in the percentage of underrepresented groups in management or experienced declines. Voluntary training showed an up to 13% increase in underrepresented groups in management across the board.

Threats don’t create champions, they aggravate existing biases. Voluntary training schemes are more successful because they create champions who are more likely than managers to pull more co-workers into the fold.

It may be impossible to completely remove unconscious bias from the workplace, but it’s the responsibility of every manager to develop strategies to combat it. It’s simply the right thing to do, as well as being good for business. For more on how to do this, read CMI’s Managing for Diversity checklist on Management Direct.

CMI’s Understanding Bias webinar on 4 September will give you all the tools you need to tackle bias in your workplace. Register here.

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