Do you recognise any of the following scenarios from your current or previous workplaces?
• You’re in a 1-2-1 with your manager and they can’t help but glance at their screen or phone mid-conversation.
• When walking through the office, a senior manager or director always chats to the same people.
• People always sit next to the same person in meetings.
• They make eye contact with some, but not others.
• Men apologise to the women in the room if they swear.
• People always favourably commenting on the input of certain individuals, but not others.
WE ARE ALL BIASED
Those are all examples of Unconscious Bias in the workplace and here’s why – up to 95 per cent of the mind’s function is unconscious. Every second, 11 million bits of information barrage our senses, but our brain’s conscious processing capacity is less than 50 bits per second. Quite the discrepancy.
When people interact with others there’s too much information available. We cannot process everything, so we group information and we put people into ‘easy to use’ categories.
Psychologists call this social categorisation – this routine sorting of people to form categories to use to prejudge others based on prior experiences, on what we have seen and heard, and based on what we have absorbed unconsciously during the course of our lives. Categorisation in a situation is done immediately and is extremely hard to change.
It’s not hard to see why there are so many forms of bias that creep into our personal and professional lives.
Affinity bias makes us warmer towards people who we categorise as having similarities to ourselves. The halo effect or tendency to think everything good about a person because we like them, conformity bias, where a person is most likely to lean towards a certain decision if they sense that more than 75 per cent of their group have a particular view.
A difficult one to talk about from a professional perspective is the beauty bias. A scientific study by the British Medical Journal has shown that height and body mass index can determine the social-economic status and earning power of an individual, particularly for women, where overweight and short women are disadvantaged when compared with tall and thin men, who earn as much as £1500 more per year.
Another example is micro inequities which are “apparently small events, often short lived and hard-to-prove. They’re covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, and occur where people are perceived to be ‘different.’”
They can block behaviours, de-value, discourage and impair contributions. These small things can have a big impact.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Awareness of unconscious bias is not enough.
Companies need to drive inclusive actions, acknowledge that hidden biases exist, and create an openness and willingness to discuss these without people feeling judged and ostracised.
Engage everyone in the focus on bias, look where that bias can occur and work on preventing it. Encourage a positive working environment, where employees feel pride in supporting others, and are rewarded for demonstrating a will to overcome such biases. Set goals and measurements to stay on track.
Get to know your colleagues: do people feel empowered to speak up, feel valued and embraced as a result of their diverse identities – if not, how can you modify your behaviour?
Slow down: Allow time for your conscious brain to engage. Delay key people decisions to a time when you are more able to give full consideration and take the time to challenge your own decisions.
Respectfully challenge others’ behaviour, calling out bias when you see it. Finally, be the change you want to see. Make yourself a role model for inclusive behaviours and, at a time when this particular phrase is often overused, make THIS the new normal.