Unconscious Bias - Making the Unconscious Conscious

Posted in : HR Updates ROI on 9 November 2020
Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive
Issues covered: Unconscious Bias; HR Updates; Discrimination and Equality

Last year, Claire McKee, Partner in Clarendon Executive wrote an interesting article, Conscious of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace.  Just over a year later, we are back to ask what we have learned over the last 12 months - and what a 12-month period it has been!

We have all been challenged by the impact of the Covid- 19 pandemic in terms of our working lives, personal lives, and our physical and mental health.  During the same period ‘Black Lives Matter’, a decentralised political and social movement advocating against police violence towards black people and all racially motivated violence against black people, has taken centre stage.  Just last week, Prince Harry, in an interview for GQ Magazine with Black Lives Matter activist, Patrick Hutchinson, admitted that he did not know unconscious racist bias existed until he was ‘living a day or week in my wife’s shoes’.  Critically, he said ‘Once you realise, or you feel a little bit uncomfortable, then the onus is on you to go out and educate yourself, because ignorance is no longer an excuse.’

There are two aspects to Unconscious Bias in the Workplace:

  • Acknowledging that we all have unconscious biases, then
  • Doing something about it – no matter how small

This might seem pretty straightforward - but sometimes we stop at the awareness/acknowledgement phase without translating this into meaningful practices and processes.  As HR practitioners and managers, champions for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, none of us like to feel that our actions and decisions are being controlled/influenced by something we are not aware of!  

Our conscious minds are logical and rational, decisions made from this place are well thought out, considered and logical.  Our unconscious minds contain our thoughts, emotions, memories and therefore resulting decisions can be influenced by our backgrounds, beliefs and values from our families and culture, our experiences and what we read, hear and see. Overwhelmed by a vast amount of information coming into the brain, the mind in an attempt to help, categorises and simplifies this information, using short cuts to facilitate decision making and this can lead to unconscious bias influencing how we view and evaluate others.  This can impact on our decision making in many aspects of people management - recruitment, development, promotion, salary negotiation and performance management.

Much work has been done to assist with identifying and addressing conscious bias in the workplace, with policies and legal frameworks now in place to protect employees and prevent business decisions being made on the basis of race, age, gender, gender identity, disability, religion, sexual orientation etc.

The challenge with unconscious bias is that we are unaware of its influence and we often struggle to acknowledge/admit it as it is totally in conflict with the conscious values by which we chose to live our lives.

Many forms of unconscious bias have been identified, including:

  • Gender bias - the tendency to rate one gender above the other
  • Age bias - the tendency to hold negative thoughts/beliefs based on a person’s age
  • Affinity bias - the tendency to connect with others who share similar interests, experiences and backgrounds
  • Confirmation bias - the tendency to quickly form an opinion on a candidate based on first impressions and use the rest of the recruitment process to confirm this decision
  • Attribution bias - the tendency to assume attributes based on previous/minimal experience with an individual
  • Conformity bias - the tendency to agree with the opinion of the group, rather than thinking for yourself and making your own decision
  • Halo effect - the tendency to rate a person highly, simply based on something positive they have done/said
  • Horns effect - the tendency to rate someone negatively,  simply based on something unacceptable/unpleasant that they did
  • Contrast effect - the tendency to compare one individual with another, back to back rather than against objective criteria
  • Other biases - including beauty, height and name! 

So among this list, we all have some of these whether we are aware of them or not.  The good news, as outlined by ACAS, is that unconscious bias:

  • Is natural,
  • Is unintentional,
  • Can affect decisions, and most importantly,
  • Can be mitigated.

So - if it is unintentional, natural, and can be mitigated, what can we as managers do to minimise or remove the influence of unconscious bias in relation to people management? 

  1. Raise awareness through training for staff - but this should not be a one-off exercise. This needs to be regular and ongoing.  Raising awareness, however, in and of itself is not enough.  This has to lead to necessary behaviour, policy and process changes.  What is crucial is that attendees do not walk away from the training thinking we all have unconscious bias, it’s not deliberate and it’s very difficult to change.  We all have a role to play.  Awareness training is beneficial if it opens up a dialogue and leads to necessary changes in systems, policies and practices.  Awareness training needs to address the skills needed to put the training into practice and what supporting frameworks are in place to reinforce and support changes in behaviour and address the barriers to change.

  2. Give ourselves time and space to make decisions.  Ask yourself - is my opinion factually true? What evidence do I have?  If unsure, ask a colleague to listen and evaluate your decision.

  3. Ensure job ads do not favour one group over another - use objective, clear language.  Remove words that may be seen as more masculine, (‘aggressive’, ‘decisive’) or more feminine (‘empathy’, ‘trust’).  Remove factors linked to unconscious bias that may influence recruitment decisions made eg remove names, addresses, gender, dates of birth, photographs from application forms.

  4. Broaden the range of places where you place job opportunities and reach out to candidates.

  5. Justify decisions by objective evidence and record this. For example in recruitment - assess and rate each applicant against objective criteria using structured, standardised skills and/or competence based interviews.  Bailey Reiners, in his article, 12 Unconscious Bias Examples and How to Avoid them in the Workplace’ refers to assessing skills, experience and qualities of a candidate as ‘culture add’ in the interview assessment, rather than ‘culture fit’.

  6. Set SMART objectives (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time bound) in performance management for all staff ensuring consistency and fairness across the organisation.  Ensure that what you are measuring, recognising and rewarding is free of bias.

  7. Deliberately meet, engage and work with a more diverse range of individuals.  Spend time with them and get to know them. Move into what Pat Divilly calls your ‘stretch zone’, out of your comfort zone.

  8. Create learning opportunities and project work across teams and individuals.

  9. The Insurance Institute recommends creating ‘inclusive meeting practices’.  Become aware of your behaviour during meetings - including deliberately sitting beside/engaging with different people at meetings, responding constructively to someone’s opinion that you disagree with, and as chair, ensuring that you seek the views of everyone present, deliberating seeking challenge and discussion and ensuring that decisions made are balanced and not overly influenced by a single group member.

  10. Encourage outreach initiatives, such as involvement in projects in the community to challenge beliefs and stereotypes, providing an opportunity to ‘walk in the shoes’ of others as a challenge to stereotypes.

  11. Develop or amend policies and procedures, systems and practices to tackle diversity issues in the workplace.

  12. Establish a safe forum for people to discuss and share their experience, concerns and approaches to unconscious bias.  Lead by example - show an openness and honesty in examining your own behaviours and expectations.

  13. Coach and train managers to lead these discussions within their own teams.  Encourage them to actively listen and respond to issues raised by team members and feedback issues.

We want to promote and establish a culture of inclusivity and diversity in our workplaces, where decision making is performance based, data driven and well thought out.  Stress, tiredness and overload may increase the likelihood of unconscious bias influencing our decisions.  In 2020 many of us are experiencing these, so we need to be more mindful of the potential role that unconscious bias can have in our decision making and take steps to mitigate against its impact.

eLearning Training Resource

Unconscious Bias in the Irish Workplace

With the value of diversity and inclusion as important as ever, it is vital that employees have an understanding of how unconscious bias can impact on their workplace and the organisation. We all have biases, many of them unconscious. Dealing with these biases starts with making the unconscious conscious.

Legal Island’s Unconscious Bias in the Workplace eLearning course provides comprehensive training for all Irish-based employees, ensuring awareness of good practice in reducing unconscious bias in the workplace.

> Learn more


This article is correct at 25/11/2020

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive

The main content of this article was provided by Mairéad Regan. Contact telephone number is +44 (0) 28 9072 5750 or email Mairead.Regan@clarendonexecutive.com

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