We all think we know what we believe. Many of us believe we have no prejudices. We believe that we are fair and equitable, and that we support diversity in gender, culture, age and ability, particularly in the workplace.
At least, that’s what we believe on a conscious level. However, a growing body of psychological research suggests we are all biased to some degree – at a level that’s unconscious.
In recent years there’s been a growing realisation, particularly among the corporate sector, that unconscious bias may be largely responsible for holding back the ability of some companies to achieve diversity in the workplace.
Many organisations are now working to acknowledge and manage their unconscious biases. In doing so, they are taking the first steps to establishing diverse and inclusive workplaces that have the potential to unlock a whole new world of opportunities.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias is a bias of which we are unaware.
At an underlying level, right below the surface of our consciousness, is a preconscious or subconscious level of the human mind. This level of beliefs, emotions and feelings has been shaped over time by a range of factors, including our family and friends, our living and working environments, our culture, and experiences.
It is this unconscious level that influences our thinking, our behaviour and our actions in ways in which we are not fully aware.
These unconscious or implicit biases are a reflexive system for our brain’s automatic processing – it’s a fast and easy way for us to group and categorise people and objects. This way, our brains avoid having to carry out completely new assessments, requiring more time and effort, for people and objects as they enter our lives.
Unconscious biases can be either towards or against cultures, genders, age groups, sexual orientation, and people with disabilities.
One much-studied unconscious bias is attractiveness. Evidence shows that when an organisation receives resumes with photos attached, the appearance of candidates can have a major impact on who is selected for interview or progression in the interview process.
How does it play out in the workplace?
Unconscious bias can impact almost any part of the workplace, from recruitment and promotions to employee diversity and even innovation.
A number of studies show that the way in which people recruit and select candidates for positions can be significantly influenced by our unconscious biases. For example, a middle-aged, white, male interviewer may have an unconscious bias of preferring to engage with someone in his own like rather than someone from a different background or culture.
While the interviewer may believe he’s being fair and equitable in the way he’s asking the interview questions or interpreting the answers, what may sit in the background are his unconscious biases that will shape his decision when it comes to narrowing the field of candidates.
Throughout the recruitment process, this interviewer will most likely believe that he is not prejudiced and that he has robustly followed the company’s policies and procedures for interviewing candidates. However, the evidence of his unconscious bias will be visible in the company’s employee intake.
Unconscious bias not only manifests in the evaluation of resumes and job credentials, it can also play out in pay gaps, mentoring and in workplace opportunities.
Another dimension of unconscious bias is innovation. Some managers or leaders can become rigidly attached to their own ideas or perceptions within the workplace, and may be more likely to reject new ideas or opportunities due to their unconscious bias. This close-mindedness is the natural enemy of innovation.
How do you manage unconscious bias?
The key element of unconscious bias is that people and organisations are not aware of their biases. There are now some online tools and psychological tests, such as the Harvard Implicit Association Test , that enable individuals to examine their own unconscious biases.
The first step to tackling unconscious bias is to acknowledge that it exists and then to examine the ways in which it manifests within an organisation, whether that’s in the recruitment, promotions or innovation space.
There are a range of practical measures that organisations can take to counter biases, such as introducing unconscious bias education and training for recruiters, managers and leaders.
Some organisations have taken major steps to reduce the impact of unconscious bias, using initiatives such as de-identifying candidate resumes. Here, details such as the name, age, gender and address of the candidate are removed from the resume, enabling the successful candidate to be chosen solely on their capabilities.
What are the benefits?
Working to manage unconscious bias can have a significant impact on diversity, enabling organisations to build more inclusive workforces with employees from different backgrounds, genders and cultures.
Most importantly, a diverse workforce promotes equal opportunity and brings with it a range of views, ideas and opportunities. Working to counter unconscious bias can develop stronger and more innovative companies that deliver better results.
It’s time we make the unconscious, conscious – for the benefit of both employees and organisations.
Disclosure statement: Simon Brown-Greaves is the director of consulting firm FBG Group, which provides organisational wellbeing, leadership, transformation and performance services. Simon is a member of the Australian Psychological Society (APS).