Unconscious bias has been a very important topic to HR staff this year especially with the rise of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. HRreview previously reported on how 60 per cent of organisations wanted to focus on DE&I programs this year as a main priority.

However, during this same period, stories regarding unconscious bias in the workplace have been flooding social media and news platforms, showing the serious and prevalent nature of the issue.

On the 14th October 2020, Nels Abbey, an author and satirist, spoke to the BBC of his experiences within organisations and the treatment he received there.

Mr. Abbey said:

On my first day in my first banking job I was waiting in the reception area and was mistaken by the entire company for a security guard.

They all showed me their ID cards one by one as they came in.

The BBC reported that this was “just one of many examples of racism [Mr.Abbey] experienced as a black man working in the City and later for big media companies, including shocking pay disparities and few opportunities for promotion”.

Similarly, a few weeks earlier, Alexandra Wilson, a black barrister, shared her experience of working in the legal system in a series of tweets that went viral on Twitter.

Ms. Wilson recounted a day where she went to court without wearing the traditional barrister wig and gown. She said:

Upon arrival, a security officer asked for my name and then searched for it on a list of defendants. I explained I was a barrister. He apologised and guided me through security.

After meeting my client, I tried to enter a courtroom to discuss the case with the prosecutor. Another barrister or solicitor sitting at the back of the court told me to go outside and wait and to sign in with the usher for my case.

I explained again I was a barrister and she looked awfully embarrassed and said ‘I see’.

At this point as I was already pretty annoyed, but I went over to the prosecutor and then the clerk told me very loudly to get out of the court room because I had to wait for my case to come on.

I was nearly in tears, and I said again, ‘I am a defence barrister’, and she nodded her head and turned back to her computer.

All of that, in one day, it made me feel exhausted.

HRreview has asked professionals on how unconscious bias in the workplace can be avoided.

Geoffroy De Lestrange, International Product Marketing and Communication Director at Cornerstone OnDemand, said:  

Conscious bias refers to those who discriminate on purpose. For unconscious bias, you might have employees who do not consciously try to discriminate, and if you tell them what they’re doing is unfair they probably didn’t realise it and might be ready to change. HR software can be helpful to resolve this.

For example, if a recruiter is manually going through a pile of printed CVs, there is a chance they may see someone’s name or gender and dismiss them due to unconscious bias, so a filtering process through software can prevent this.

From there, it’s a matter of getting more people involved in the hiring process – the more people who review the CVs and candidate interviews brings down the possibility of unconscious bias. If you have proper HR software tools that aid with succession planning, performance, and more, the software system will also give suggestions on who may be ready for a promotion or who could be trained to be a manager. The software doesn’t discriminate, which is why gathering the correct information on people is so important.

Professor Toni Irving, Professor of Practice in Business Administration at Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, advised organisations to address structural issues within their companies, stating:

An inclusive hiring process is dependent on factors outside the process as well. Candidates look at the make-up of the executives, the management, and the brand, culture and values of an organisation.

Firms should expect that potential hires are talking to people of colour in the organisation to get the real scoop on opportunities — and whether the company is paying lip service or really acting with inclusion.

If what they hear and see contradicts their hiring process experience, no matter how inclusive, those hiring efforts may be in vain. Leaders need to be aware of the organisation’s compensation equity, representation across all role levels and retention for diverse employees — and be authentic about any initiatives for enhancement.