The threat of unconscious bias in the workplace

In-House Recruiting, Recruitment Agencies
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A job recruitment process should hire people most qualified for the job, regardless of age, gender or background. That doesn’t always happen, due to unconscious bias in the workplace

Unconscious bias is natural. It’s deep-rooted in the human recognition that has evolved in our brains to help us survive – if our brains couldn’t subconsciously process huge amounts of information, we would have ended up as food very quickly, long ago.

Our conscious mind is only processing a tiny fraction of what our unconscious minds are processing. Some scientists estimate that we receive 11 million bits of information every moment – and that we’re only consciously processing 40 bits of this.

Unconscious minds will include unconscious bias. Everybody has biases, because it’s part of being human. Project Implicit, a long-term research project based at Harvard University, says that very few of us don’t have implicit biases of one form or another

Unconsciously, we tend to gravitate towards people who might look like us, think like us, and come from similar backgrounds. We all think we are open and objective, but the experiences, beliefs and values gained from the way we live tend to heavily influence others and ourselves.

“In the workplace, unconscious bias has certain consequences. For example, if two job candidates are similar, the instinct of a recruiting manager may be what wins the role for one person rather than another. The problem comes when this instinctive feeling is driven by an unconscious bias, in the form of gender bias, racial bias, or even the accent one of the jobseekers is speaking in. That’s unfair to the employee that loses out,” says Anna Skelton, Senior HR Business Partner at Jobsite.

The threat of unconscious bias in the workplace

What does unconscious bias in the workplace look like?

Today, we have a more diverse workplace. And in the UK, it’s now rare to see overt discrimination. But the subtle and ambiguous behaviours of unconscious bias, although generally not malicious, causes damage to organisations. This is because there is a business case for diversity – customers tend to be diverse, so having a workforce that is representative of them should offer a wider range of experience and viewpoints that could improve decision making.

Because this is done unconsciously, it’s the type of action or behaviour which could be swept under the carpet. But in the UK, gender bias and racial bias add to issues like the gender gap – an 18 per cent difference in average earnings between men and women that has developed over years, due to for example, a lack of women in senior high-paying roles.

3 Ways unconscious bias in the workplace could be triggered:

  • Associating jobs with a certain type of person. In a white male-dominated industry for instance, an interviewer may already have unconscious bias about the type of person who will be most suitable for the role, based on age, background and gender.
  • Looking at a group of job candidates, where we’re more likely to show positive or negative bias towards people in outlying demographics. This may be unconsciously done to differentiate people with similar qualifications and experience.
  • When we’re lacking information, our brain fills in the gaps. The main example of an incomplete record of a person is a CV, where a recruiter could make judgements based on name, gender, age, or the type of education that person has.

The threat of unconscious bias in the workplace

4 Steps to manage unconscious bias in the workplace

  1. Increase self-awareness: Individuals need to be honest to themselves about the biases that affect them. The question is not ‘do we have biases?’ but more like ‘what are our biases’? In recruitment for example, unconscious bias can mean managers favouring applicants from their own background.  They should find practical ways to focus more on performance and skills rather than issues such as gender or where they’ve come from.
  2. Make recruitment truly selective: Employers should look at their recruitment procedures and make sure these are truly selective where possible. For example, they can look at how people are hired, how work is assigned and how salaries are determined. Practical steps to reduce gender bias or racial bias for example, includes reading CVs side by side, crossing out the names, or using gender-neutral job adverts.
  3. Behavioural design: This is where organisations are changing their processes to make it easier for our biased minds to get things right. This could include using software to strip age, gender and background out of CVs completely, or using structured interviews where each candidate is asked the same questions, in the same order. This is designed to get rid of instinct and that ‘gut feel’ when it comes to recruitment.
  4. Unconscious bias training: This can help people realise that unconscious bias is a problem, provoking individuals to question themselves and change any attitudes which could affect the way they recruit. This shouldn’t be about blame – rather, it’ll help people question themselves, their reactions to other people, and why it happens.

There’s a growing realisation that unconscious bias in the workplace is holding back the ability of employers to increase diversity, needed for equal opportunity. And having a team of employees with a range of unique views and ways of thinking allows employers to recruit people who can make them more innovative, and drive better results.

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