Tackling unconscious bias

The very nature of this subconscious behaviour is that it is born out of lack of awareness.  We all harbour preconceptions that are often rooted in our past experiences, preferences and our need for affinity. These motivate us to align ourselves with like-minded individuals and those that have shared similar life experiences.

Unconscious bias can lead us to make ill-founded assumptions that cause us to reject those that do not meet a predetermined set of criteria. These assumptions are not deliberate, well-reasoned or controlled but can have a significant impact on the working environment particularly when others subconsciously adopt them.

It is surprisingly easy for unconscious bias to filter into an organisations culture because of the very nature of its invisibility. Negative perceptions can affect our ability to evaluate suitability in all manner of situations including recruitment, promotion and staff development This can leave employees feeling undervalued,

In the working environment, unconscious bias can also lead to discrimination if it surrounds a protected characteristic, one good reason to tackle the issue. However, the biggest risk is that organisations are not making full use of the competencies and skills within the workforce and this impacts directly upon productivity, employees sense of wellbeing, staff retention etc.

It is a complex behaviour so how can an organisation mitigate against it?  

The first important step is to understand that unconscious bias is likely to be present in all areas of the organisation and this will affect the performance of the business as a whole. The key here is to deliver training across the whole organisation that challenges delegates to reflect on their own unconscious preconceptions, which in turn will lead to better awareness.

The BBC’s news team recently reported on a new initiative undertaken by the Atomic Energy Authority to tackle bias in the recruitment process.  They plan to remove all names from job applications in an attempt to counter the effect of unconscious gender bias and improve the percentage of female workers in the sector. Many organisations are benefiting from similar initiatives.

Unconscious bias is not something that can be changed through a tick box exercise, it requires active involvement in the process. Experiential learning techniques can be particularly powerful in changing deep rooted behaviours and perceptions. Focussing on the experiences of the individual and by encouraging reflection, it signposts change and promotes raised awareness.