In our increasingly diverse and interconnected world, it is crucial to recognise and address subconscious biases both in the workplace and in our personal lives. These invisible reservations shape our interactions, choices and opportunities, while often unintentionally limiting inclusivity and reinforcing an inequality. In a society that strives for fairness and equality, addressing unconscious bias is not only important - it is an absolute necessity. Because it is costly. A 2017 Harvard Business Review/University of Chicago study estimated that employee dissatisfaction is one of the consequences that cost companies in the US $450 billion to $550 billion annually.
Understanding unconscious bias can help us break down barriers, foster diverse thinking (and to ensure innovation) and create a more inclusive and productive environment. But first, what exactly is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, refers to the automatic and often unintentional stereotypes or judgements we have about others based on their identity, such as ethnical background, gender, age or appearance, which can influence our decisions and behaviour - without us being aware of it. It is like a hidden influence that affects our interactions with others and our perception of the world (usually negatively).
First, recognising and understanding common forms of unconscious bias is crucial to creating a more equitable and inclusive work environment. This is because there are a number of different biases that significantly shape perceptions and behaviour in organisations. Understanding these biases enables organisations to develop strategies and actions to mitigate their negative effects and promote a more inclusive and diverse work environment.
These are the most common prejudices, but this list is not exhaustive. This is to promote an idea of the magnitude of the impact unconscious bias can have in your organisation. So let's take a look at these very effects.
The effects of unconscious bias are subtle, but they have a significant impact on the work environment. The unfair treatment of qualified employees due to bias of any kind can affect team dynamics and create an unhelpful or even hostile work environment (toxic workplace). It attacks an organisation at its core: its employees and also its culture.
Unconscious bias can lead to biassed decision-making, resulting in unfair treatment of employees and hindering individual performance. Biassed evaluations and promotions based on unconscious bias can contribute to a lack of recognition and advancement opportunities for certain individuals, ultimately impacting overall organisational performance.
This can further influence the hiring and recruitment process, leading to the selection of candidates who fit the biassed stereotypes rather than those who are truly qualified. This perpetuates homogeneity within the workforce and limits the diversity of perspectives and ideas, which in turn primarily hinders innovation and growth.
It also affects communication dynamics in the workplace by creating barriers and misunderstandings between people with different backgrounds or identities. Biassed assumptions and stereotypes lead to misinterpretation, exclusion or unequal participation in discussions and decision-making processes. This is where so-called "inclusive communication" comes in, read our article on this topic here.
Unconscious bias is equally an obstacle to promoting diversity and inclusion in an organisation. Bias in hiring, promotions and team assignments can lead to under-representation of certain groups, perpetuating imbalances and thereby limiting the benefits of a diverse workforce.
When employees experience or perceive bias in the workplace, it can lead to decreased morale and job satisfaction. Unaddressed unconscious bias contributes to a toxic work environment, resulting in increased turnover and difficulties in attracting and retaining diverse talent. In other words, the exact opposite of a positive employee experience.
In summary, unconscious bias in the workplace has wide-ranging effects. It impacts individual experiences, performance, organisational culture, diversity, and inclusion efforts. Recognizing and addressing unconscious bias is crucial for creating a fair, inclusive, and high-performing workplace that values and leverages the diverse talents and perspectives of its employees.
In order to create a workplace that is truly inclusive and equitable, there are several strategies that can be implemented to overcome unconscious bias. By embracing these strategies, we can foster an environment where diversity thrives and individuals are valued for their unique contributions:
By providing comprehensive training and education on unconscious bias, we can raise awareness among employees and leaders. This helps individuals recognise their own biases and understand the impact they have on decision-making and interactions. Through knowledge and self-reflection, we can actively challenge and overcome unconscious bias.
Organisations can establish dedicated programs and policies that promote diversity and inclusion. By actively seeking diverse perspectives and creating opportunities for underrepresented groups, we can break down barriers and foster an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and supported.
And that starts with recruiting. To reduce bias here, it is important to introduce bias-free processes. This includes removing identifying information from CVs, using diverse hiring panels and using structured interviews. By putting qualifications and skills first and avoiding unconscious bias, we can give all candidates a fair chance.
Creating a culture of open communication and feedback allows individuals to share their experiences and perspectives. Encouraging honest discussions about bias and its impact fosters a supportive environment where biases can be acknowledged and addressed constructively.
By fostering a culture of empathy and understanding, we can create an environment where individuals genuinely listen and seek to understand one another. Encouraging empathy allows us to challenge assumptions, break down stereotypes, and build stronger relationships based on mutual respect.
Data-driven decision making helps mitigate unconscious bias by relying on objective information. By analysing data related to performance, promotions, and compensation, organisations can identify and rectify any biases that may be present in these processes, promoting fairness and equality.
Mentorship and sponsorship programs can play a vital role in overcoming unconscious bias. Pairing individuals from diverse backgrounds with mentors or sponsors who can offer guidance and advocate for their professional growth helps break down barriers and creates equal opportunities for advancement.
Dealing with unconscious bias in the workplace is of utmost importance in today's diversified and interconnected world. The future requires continuous efforts to uncover and combat these hidden influences in order to promote diverse thinking and create a more inclusive and productive work environment.
Tackling unconscious bias is an ongoing process that requires continuous commitment and effort. Both employers and employees have a role to play in addressing unconscious bias and should take proactive measures such as those presented in this article.
By implementing these strategies, employers and employees can work together to break down barriers, promote diversity and create a work environment where everyone is valued for their unique contribution, regardless of their background. A place characterised by inclusivity, equality and the power of diverse perspectives. Ultimately, a place where people enjoy coming together and working collaboratively.