Recognising your unconscious bias

Have you seen the light? You might think that you’re an enlightened manager and employer and wouldn’t consider yourself to be prejudiced or discriminatory, but in reality is this really the case? Or, if you were completely honest with yourself, do you think there’s a little bit of unconscious bias in your opinions and decision making? Here, he looks at what unconscious bias is, its impact on the workplace and reflects on what you can start to do in your own business to break the habit.

Understanding unconscious bias

Bias is an inclination or prejudice for or against a person or group, especially in a way that is considered to be unfair. Before you think this doesn’t apply to you, it’s a fact that we’re all programmed to subconsciously categorise others, make prejudiced judgements and jump to conclusions; the human tendency to be biased is a natural result of evolution and has developed over thousands of years.

Our unconscious bias can override rational decisions and logical thinking and when our unconscious bias comes into play our decision making may not be as robust or objective as we believe them to be. And when it comes to business, bias-based decisions and behaviour can limit creativity and opportunity, as well as lead to discrimination – all of which can have a significant impact on performance, productivity and the bottom line.

The impact of bias on the workplace

Bias can creep into any situation where individuals have the power to influence outcomes through their decisions and actions. This means that unconscious bias can have serious implications for recruitment, people management and development, performance management, retention and customer service – as well as legal issues.

It can affect a range of situations, such as preventing the best candidate from getting a job, selecting the most suitable colleague to work on an important project, preventing a performance review leading to a bonus, stopping a good idea from being recognised, causing a customer or client to complain and take their business elsewhere or even lead to allegations of discrimination having to be defended at a tribunal or in court.

Take a moment to consider your own bias and put yourself in someone else’s shoes: perhaps you’re starting work at a design agency that’s dominated by ‘young’ staff. What are your thoughts and feelings? What are your worst fears about how things will work out? And what could your employer or manager at the agency do that would be helpful or encouraging?

The answers to these questions will be personal to you, but our gut instinct is ususally what we feel comfortable with. Yet, if you structure your thought processes in this way you start to think about everything differently. What about job adverts, for example? Did you know that a badly written job, such as one that puts access you’re a work hard, play hard culture, will result in no applications from women, especially those with children?

Breaking the habit of unconscious bias

A great starting point for managing your own unconscious bias and the bias that exists within your organisations is to first of all accept that in general terms we are all likely to be biased in some respects and that this will affect our actions and decisions. However, we shouldn’t feel guilty for this and instead accept responsibility for monitoring our own behaviours and commit consciously to being fair and respectful to everyone we come into contact with.

If you suspect you hold bias for a particular group of people, try to analyse why this is. Where does the bias come from and what does it mean? What is your first recollection of feeling this way? Was the bias triggered by a particular event or learned from a particular person? What can you do about this bias?

You should also actively contribute to creating a workplace where diversity matters, where equality is taken seriously and where different views and ways of working are valued. When it comes to reviewing your approach to people management, review your responsibilities at every part of the employee life cycle. Check for hidden biases, whether during shortlisting, interviewing, mentoring, performance evaluation, promotion or termination of employment.

You can better understand your own unconscious bias by keeping good records of decisions and justifications and monitor these for patterns that might suggest unintentional bias.

As small business owners we have a very strong advantage over large corporates when it comes to understanding and managing unconscious bias; we can create a great working culture and generate competitive advantage in hiring talent because we’re on the lookout for the best people, not simply those we feel comfortable with.

Alongside this, simply being aware of unconscious bias as a potential issue for you as an entrepreneur and your business means you are already on the right path to breaking the habit and taking positive steps. This not only promotes equality, inclusion and diversity in your business, but you’ll be making better people decisions to support your growth goals.

David Marshall is the chief executive of Marshall ACM, a leading e-learning provider.