How do we become conscious of our unconscious bias?

It could be putting a woman’s CV to the bottom of the pile because she’s of child-bearing age or dismissing a candidate because they smelled of cigarette smoke during the interview. Unconscious bias exists in all of us, but when it creeps into the workplace it can become a problem. So how can we prevent these predispositions from impacting our organisations and ensure we’re promoting a diverse and inclusive environment?

Cindy Gunn, HR Manager at leading national recruitment agency, Encore Personnel, sheds light on a topic that by its very nature is difficult to tackle – after all, it is unconscious.

Whether it’s race, age, religion, gender, wealth or appearance, most of us have been guilty of judging a book by its cover. In fact, as humans we’re hard-wired to make quick assessments of others based on our previous experiences, attitudes and stereotypes. The danger is that if not addressed in a professional environment, these unconscious biases can thwart recruitment efforts, hinder career progression and undermine an organisation to the point that it impacts on workplace culture and the all-important bottom line.

Unconscious bias is reported to cost US companies $550 billion (£423 billion) a year as a result of what is called ‘active disengagement’ – an employee deliberately putting the brakes on their productivity because they perceive there to be bias in the workplace[1]. Not to mention how it affects talent retention, with those who perceive bias more than three times more likely to say they’re planning to leave their job within the year. It even impacts the ideas pipeline, with bias causing people to withhold ideas and solutions that could go on to become extremely valuable to their organisations.

The trick to stamping this out starts with taking a good hard look within to identify where unconscious bias exists and its real or potential impacts. It’s then about creating processes and policies that make people aware of their own biases and the consequences for giving in to them.

Facts not face value

Encourage people to base their decisions on quantitative and qualitative information, rather than their unconscious impressions. This could mean making CVs anonymous when reviewing applicants for a new position, having a diverse interview or performance review panel, or simply inviting diverse team members to peer review a decision or rationale. By establishing standards and procedures where others have the opportunity to input and provide feedback, you will become more aware of your own biases and work harder to ignore them next time.

Celebrate diversity & inclusion

It’s not enough to simply open the door to a diverse workforce. You need to ensure they feel valued and included if they’re to stay. At Encore we’ve created an Equal Opportunities Policy which places an obligation on all staff to respect and adhere to a culture of diversity and inclusion and to treat everyone equally. Our people agree to assess candidates only on merit, qualifications and their ability to perform their role. The policy has helped us to embed D&I into our culture and our employees take ownership of fostering equality on a day-to-day basis. We’ve also made a commitment to ensuring our workforces in each Encore location reflect the communities they operate in.

We find our policy is much more than a piece of paper. It helps us to provide clarity around what will and will not be tolerated and helps us to avoid discrimination, whether conscious or unconscious. Recently it was reported that almost one in three UK bosses have or would reject a female applicant because they suspect she might start a family soon[2]. It’s an alarming figure and despite being a clear breach of the Equality Act, a very real challenge faced by many women seeking employment. And sadly, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Nip it in the bud

Having a clear process for responding to and managing complaints where biases like these arise is another step to ridding your organisation of prejudice. Responding in a timely and discreet way is key, as is ensuring everyone involved has the opportunity to tell their side of the story.

How complaints are managed is a direct reflection of the organisation and therefore the disciplinary committee should in itself be diverse. It’s also worth keeping in mind that often people can be genuinely unaware of their biases and not intending to cause harm or offence. For that reason, employees should be given the opportunity to redeem themselves and undertake training if necessary.

All of us are biased. That doesn’t make us racists or misogynists, it makes us human. By elevating our biases from the unconscious to the conscious we can avoid letting it impact negatively on our workplace and our colleagues.

[1] How to Tackle U.S. Employees’ Stagnating Engagement

[2] Bosses Admit to Discriminating against Women and Over 50s When Hiring Online


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