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  • Writer's pictureTrish Driver

Unconscious bias and its impact at work

Updated: Feb 2, 2019

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias refers to a bias of which we are unaware, which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

So let's be clear – every single one of us has our own unique unconscious biases. And there are sound evolutionary reasons for this. As human beings, we are bombarded with 11 million pieces of information every minute. That’s a lot. Especially when you consider that our brains can only process 40 pieces of information at any given moment. So in order to survive, our brains learn rapidly to form patterns and draw rapid conclusions. It’s the “gut instinct” which keeps us safe, in potentially risky situations, and for that reason it’s a valuable survival tool.

A useful tool for survival, but not for a fair workplace

These patterns and “gut instinct” aren’t useful in a working environment. They make us more likely (usually completely unconsciously) to gravitate to people like us, or people who remind us of those we’ve had a positive experience with in the past. They also make us less likely (again unconsciously) to support those who aren’t part of our “in-group”. These decisions are so unconscious that most of the time we won’t even be aware of them.

Let’s take the example of “affinity bias” (the tendency to respond more favourably to those with whom we perceive we have something in common) playing out in an interview situation. An interviewer conducts two interviews in a morning. The first candidate is someone with whom he feels an affinity – maybe they attended the same university or grew up in the same town. The candidate fumbles over his first answer, and the affinity bias kicks in – the interviewer tells him to relax, take a moment, and then the interview continues as normal. The second candidate is someone with whom the interviewer doesn’t feel that strong affinity – there may not be any negative associations, but the interviewer’s affinity bias doesn’t kick in to give the second candidate the same "breathing space". If the interviewer were asked whether he’d treated both candidates equally, not only would he say yes, but he would pass a lie detector test. As Jennifer Milne, a PhD student at the University of Western Ontario puts it, "It's as though we have a semi-autonomous robot in our brain that plans and executes actions on our behalf with only the broadest of instructions from us."

Put these factors into recruitment situation like the one above, or a promotion panel, and you have processes which are a long way from fair. Imagine the impact of these biases continuing to play out annually (or even twice annually) in performance review cycles, and you can see the impact bias has on careers and employee engagement. Consider the impact of these biases running un-checked in an organization which has an operational imperative around cultural inclusion (and when you see the McKinsey researcharound the ways diverse organisations outperform their peers, we believe every organization has this imperative), and the result is disastrous.

Even the most rational of us can be impacted by our biases

It can feel hard to believe that rational, sensible humans are susceptible to letting their biases run away with them, but even the most rational professions aren't immune, as a study by Jo Handelsman showed. "They provided about 200 academic researchers with an application from a senior undergraduate student ostensibly applying for a job as lab manager. The faculty participants all received the same application, which was randomly assigned a male or female name. The faculty were asked to judge the applicants’ competency, how much they should be paid, and whether or not they would be willing to mentor the student.

In the end, scientists responded no differently than other groups tested for bias. Both men and women science faculty were more likely to hire the male, ranked him higher in competency, and were willing to pay him $4000 more than the woman. They were also more willing to provide mentoring to the male than to the female candidate." 

When you throw race into the equation, the results are equally as depressing... The study "Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal?" used similar methodology to the above, varying the names on the same CVs to measure the impact of names. The study showed that a typically "white" name yielded 50% more callbacks than a name with African American connotations. Additionally, when the quality of the CVs was raised, the candidates with typically "white" names saw a higher increase in callbacks proportionally than their African American equivalent. This study took place in 2003, so the hope would be that things have moved on, but more recent research by BITC shows similar discrepancies between the success of BAME candidates and their white counterparts through recruitment processes.

Managing bias and its impact is possible

Happily, biases don't have to run un-checked, and whilst bias can never be completely eliminated, it can be managed so that it doesn't impact your organisational processes or culture. Our three tips for managing bias?

1. Start the conversation - enabling all employees to understand unconscious bias is a hugely important first step.

2. Raise awareness of bias at an individual level - we all have them, and the first step to managing bias is to acknowledge our own.

3. Learn how to manage bias - both at an individual level, and how to unbias your processes and procedures as an organisation.

At A New Normal, we believe that you can’t have a truly inclusive culture without bringing biases out of the unconscious and understanding how to tackle them. We also believe that you can’t “train” people on unconscious bias, so instead we run interactive and impactful workshops to support people at all levels of organisations to understand what unconscious bias is, recognize their biases, and the steps they can take to manage them.

Trish has an engaging style and great presence. This coupled with her extensive subject matter expertise and passion for her topic make for consistently engaging interventions.” GH, Senior Manager, Capgemini UK

To talk to us about unbiasing your organization, contact - we’d love to hear from you.


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