Spotlight: Tackling unconscious bias in the workplace


Our latest Spotlight is a guest post is from Alexandra Alexander, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at Clarion Housing Group. Following a great session on unconscious bias at a recent Notting Hill Housing BAME event, Alexandra has summarised the content into a blog post that we are excited to share.

Unconscious bias is something that has been talked about for years by those who are interested in diversity and inclusion, so much so that now there are many articles about it being ‘old hat’ and warning businesses that unconscious bias training will not solve all of their inclusion problems, even suggesting a name change so it doesn’t seem quite so trite.

In my humble opinion it’s still a really important subject and if it makes just one person question their own assumptions and prejudgements then it is worth it.

We all have biases: we can’t help it, it is part of being human. Unconscious biases are biases we aren’t even aware of. The two main reasons cited for this are:

  • It’s a primal reaction. We are programmed to assess whether people or things are a threat to us and the more someone looks like us the less of a threat we will perceive them to be. In 2017 we are less likely to need this instinct. It may be useful to assess whether or not to walk down a dark alley with a clown waiting at the end of it, but generally in day to day work life you do not need it. In fact it’s the instinct that you need to question the most.
  • Our brains are hardwired to categorise things, as we have so much information coming at us we need to make sense of it as quickly as possible. We therefore use the most obvious and visible categories to judge the people and things we come into contact with.

In these unconscious processes, stereotypes we’ve learnt throughout our lives come into play so we need to ensure we are able to question ourselves and our decisions.

Here’s a quick exercise: Think about your five closest friends, the people you would call on in a crisis (they cannot be family). Now think about their gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion do they have a disability, do they identify as transgender? What do you notice about your closest friends? Are they very similar to you? It is extremely likely that they are.

When you think about your other friends, the ones you meet for dinner or a cuppa, are they not quite as much like you? Then think about your acquaintances, are they quite different from you?

Now put this in a work context. Who are your trusted colleagues, the ones you call upon to do that presentation to the senior management team, to be involved in that high profile project, to help you out at the last minute because you trust them to do it right? Are these the colleagues who are most like you?

You may think that it wouldn’t be fair to ask people that you don’t know as well but by doing this you may be giving great career opportunities to people just like you. This can be detrimental in organisations where the leadership population is dominated by a certain group. In this way the dominant group perpetuates as more similar people earn promotions. I’m not saying that the promotions are not deserved and that ‘John’ didn’t do a good job and work really hard. I’m saying that many other colleagues would have liked to have been given that opportunity.

When organisations lack diversity they lack the ability to think differently, to be innovative and bring dynamic solutions to problems. They are often less inclusive which means that colleagues do not feel free to be themselves at work which leads to increased staff turnover and lower productivity. We also want to be able to understand our residents and mirror their profile as best we can.

Unconscious bias is a huge area and there are many different types of bias of which I have barely touched upon so I encourage you to read more or go to a workshop but most of all just think about the decisions you’ve made and why you’ve made them.

After interviewing candidates, pause and question why you chose one over the other. After handing out projects or tasks to colleagues, pause and question why you gave the high profile project to one over the other. Is it because they are best at that or do you perceive them to be best at that? Could you spend a bit of time explaining it to someone else so they might get an opportunity to learn new skills that will help them in their career or expose them to senior colleagues?

Finally, our biases are most prevalent when we are tired, hungry, under pressure, angry, nervous or frustrated. Try to avoid making big decisions when you are in any of these states.

We all have biases, both conscious and unconscious. What’s important is that we remember to keep questioning them and to try to be inclusive in all of our decision making.


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