25th February 2019

5 ways to challenge unconscious bias in the workplace

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Unconscious bias isn’t a bad thing. It is an evolutionary response to danger, keeps us alive and has done its job effectively for millions of years.

However, the problem with evolution is that it takes time, and the evolution of our unconscious responses hasn’t kept up with the cultural, demographic and technological changes of the past century.

Whilst our unconscious brain prefers the safety of familiarity and those that are most like us, the modern workplace not only means that we must frequently interact and work with colleagues who are not like us, but that diverse teams and inclusion produce better results than homogeneous teams and exclusion.

To maximise productivity and results at work, we need to challenge our unconscious bias.

Request a free Unconscious bias e-learning consultation today

Should we focus on London next quarter?

This seems to be a reasonable question. However, our language includes implicit biases which provide cues for others. Anchoring bias is where individuals use an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgements. By framing London as the anchor, we have planted a seed in our colleague’s minds. It sets a higher bar for subsequent suggestions and perspectives.

Challenge the anchoring effect by requiring a team member to play “Devil’s Advocate”. Giving one individual the clear role of disruptor allows other team members to feel less self-conscious about challenging the consensus and enhances decision making.

Glass half full

As any politician knows, the key to getting away with failure is in the presentation. 90% of people leaving hospital fighting fit sounds much better than focusing on the 10% of people who died!

This unconscious bias is the framing effect. The framing effect in the workplace can mean that a manager views an employee differently when told that they have met 70% of their targets compared to an employee who they are told has missed 30% of their targets. Both employees are performing at exactly the same standard, but framing that performance either negatively or positively changes the overall perception of the employee.

Challenge the framing effect by using consistent measures to ensure employees are being assessed fairly. If you see information being framed differently at different times, consider the motivations of the person delivering the information in order to reach the best judgement.

Challenge Bias

Me, biased?

Yes, you probably are. I on the other hand, would like to think I’m not. This is the bias blind spot. We consider ourselves to be relatively unbiased compared with others. Few of us would admit that we treat colleagues poorly because they are different. The bias blind spot is particularly dangerous in interviews and assessment. We may identify that a colleague is making decisions based on their preference for candidates from Russell Group universities, but fail to identify our own preference for candidates from public schools.

Challenging other people’s bias blind spots can be difficult but identifying and accounting for your own bias blind spots is even harder. Ask colleagues, reports and managers what they think your biases are. Open and honest conversations about the biases other people see us displaying can reveal our bias blind spots, allowing us to take these into consideration and make better decisions.

David or Okechukwu?

Research indicates that those with “ethnic sounding” names in western countries are less likely to be selected for interview than those with “western sounding” names. This comes down to a hiring manager’s assumptions and background. A familiar sounding name is comforting, and a strange sounding name represents the unknown, and therefore a risk.

Of course, this works both ways. A hiring manager from a Nigerian background would be familiar with Okechukwu’s name and may show bias towards him. But for a hiring manager from a white European background, Okechukwu’s name causes discomfort and assumptions: the discomfort of potentially pronouncing it incorrectly; the implicit assumption that Okechukwu is black; not being able to easily identify Okechukwu’s gender. The risks identified by the hiring manager have no relationship to Okechukwu’s ability to perform the role. However, they are enough to make the hiring manager disregard his CV because it is “too difficult”.

Challenge name bias with name blind CVs. Have one person remove or obscure identifiers before passing applications to hiring managers. This allows them to focus on the parts of the candidate’s CV that matter, such as experience, skills and qualifications, rather than on bias triggers such as name and gender.

Don’t worry, we’ll look after her

Nadia has just returned from maternity leave. She wants to get stuck back in to work, but finds that she is being given easy projects that don’t challenge her. Her manager is trying to protect her from over stressing herself, assuming that juggling a young child and work is causing stress. In reality, Nadia’s husband has taken on almost all of the childcare. Nadia is experiencing benevolent sexism.

Nadia’s manager is trying to “look after” or protect her, but hasn’t actually asked what Nadia wants. Nadia’s manager believes they are doing the right thing, being inclusive and supporting Nadia with motherhood. However, they are actually restricting Nadia’s career progression as she is not being given challenging, high profile projects.

Whilst empathy is a key component for managers, don’t use it to justify assumptions. Keep an open mind when entering into return to work conversations. You should make decisions based on what the employee wants, not what you think they should want. Should Nadia not perform well in the challenging, high profile projects she wants to take on, then as a line manager you should have a conversation about less stressful projects.

Request a free Unconscious bias e-learning consultation today