This article is based on a talk given by Paul Skovron from 3ln Recruiting about Conscious and Unconscious Bias in the Workplace.

Whether we want to admit it or not all of us harbour unconscious bias and most of us harbour some form of conscious bias. While society has advocated against discrimination and laws have been created to enforce this view, we all struggle to escape the underlying influences that shape how we perceive and treat others.

Paul started the workshop by asking us to explain the following situation:

“A father and son are driving down the highway when they get into an accident. The father is killed immediately and the son suffers serious injuries. He is brought into the ICU and whisked into surgery. The doctor arrives, but exclaims ‘I cannot operate on the patient, he is my son’”.

We threw ideas around about possible answers. “Perhaps, it’s a same-sex couple’s son,” said one participant. “Maybe, he has two fathers without being same-sex like a step-dad,” said another. Of course, the answer is rather simple -- the doctor was the boy’s mother. In not recognising that possibility, we, as a group of women, confirmed the stereotype that women are not doctors, only men are doctors effectively proving that we all have unconscious, or slightly more conscious, bias.

So, What is Conscious and Unconscious Bias?

Bias, according to Merriam Webster Dictionary, is a specific inclination, idea or feeling about someone that is preconceived or unreasonable. Often bias is based on physical attributes like skin colour, gender, age, etc. which can be recognised easily and almost immediately and have nothing or very little to do with the individual’s personality or professional experiences.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias is often much harder to determine as it exists in our subconscious and is normally triggered automatically, unknowingly and often without our awareness. Unconscious bias nonetheless still impacts how we perceive, interact and engage with others.

What Influences Bias?

Almost every aspect of our lives influences bias: our childhoods and family network, religion, nationality, education, life experiences both negative and positive, social media, friends and family, co-workers and employment, and so much more. Every day we process millions of pieces of information -- its essential for our continued wellbeing. Yet, we can’t handle processing so much information, so we’ve devised ways to make snap judgements. As we mature and develop, we use our experiences to reconfirm or reveal the errors in our decision-making process. Over the years this process transforms us from babies born without any bias or prejudice into adults rife with unconscious and conscious bias.

How Bias Affects Our Decision-Making

Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate or a venture deal and reach a fair and rational conclusion that’s in our, and our organisation’s, best interests,” writes Harvard University researcher Mahzarin Banaji in the Harvard Business Review. “But more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception."

Conscious and unconscious bias radically influences how we make decisions from impacting our perception of others to our attitudes and reactions towards certain people. It can affect how receptive or friendly we are towards certain people (i.e. whether we’re “on guard”), the aspects we notice or mark as the most important when interacting with others and even our listening skills. If we harbour unconscious bias, we may not actively listen to what the individual is saying as we’ve already decided that they’re not worth speaking with.

Whether we’re hiring someone for a new job, making friends in the office, or looking to promote someone, bias influences almost every decision we make about others. Our choices prevent some people from accessing the same life and professional opportunities as others and ultimately, in a more financial sense, cost businesses billions every year.

The Cost of Bias

While bias has many negative impacts for its victims, it also negatively impacts businesses. By not having a diverse workforce business are unable to attract leading talent, lack innovation and develop a negative reputation. It’s often difficult to attribute a business’ setbacks to unconscious bias or measure the impacts of conscious bias. Instead, Paul Skovron recommends we examine the cost of discrimination and tribunals.

Discrimination, closely linked with conscious bias, can help us identify the financial impact for businesses. According to Involve and CEBR 2018 research, every year companies within the UK pay out a total of £127 billion due to discrimination tribunals and settlements. When broken down into types of discrimination, £123 billion resulted from gender-based discrimination and £2.6 from discrimination against BAME individuals. Mixed ethnic employees, on average, also earn £152 more per week than their white colleagues while white colleagues earn £67-209 more per week than their black or ethnic coworkers.

Eliminating gender, racial and sexual orientation discrimination would not only benefit individuals and employers, but it would also enhance the overall economy. Researchers estimate that an equal workplace would result in a 7% higher GDP for the UK.

Practical Steps for Addressing Unconscious Bias

Unless you’re a white mid-20s male, the news, while altogether not that surprising, that everyone harbours unconscious bias may be relatively depressing. The realisation or confirmation that you may not have received certain roles or promotions due to your gender, race or another completely unchangeable attribute kind of sucks. So, how do you stop yourself from becoming the victim of bias? Or, better yet how do you eliminate bias from your own decision making process?

Paul recommends we start by being rather uncomfortably honest and identifying our unconscious bias. Essentially, making the unconscious, conscious. Since we’re not readily aware of unconscious bias, this is relatively difficult.

One way of recognising unconscious bias is to be aware of the different types. There are seven main forms of unconscious bias:

  1. Affinity. Affinity bias occurs when you unconsciously prefer someone because they remind you of yourself.
  2. Attribution. Attribution bias involves the idea that achievements result from luck while errors or mistake occur due to a lack of skills.
  3. Beauty. Beauty bias refers to how we treat another individual based on their, or lack of, physical attractiveness.
  4. Conformity. Often associated with group mentality, conformity bias is when our social circle influences our perception of someone.
  5. Confirmation. Confirmation bias is when we specifically look for evidence to support an earlier or preconceived assumption and typically results in selective observation.
  6. Contrast Effect. Effectively comparing apples to oranges, the contrast effect is a type of bias that arises from contrasting two entirely separate things.
  7. Halo & Horns Effect. The halo effect occurs when we focus on one particularly great attribute, ignoring all other flaws or defects while the horns effect involves concentrating solely on one negative characteristic despite other more positive ones.

Understanding these types of bias can help us recognise our own bias and situations where we might become the victim of unconscious bias. However, to truly identify our private sources of bias, we need to dive deeper and observe the factors that influence our decisions. Thankfully, there are a few tools we can use to make the process a bit easier.

Project Implicit from Harvard is a particularly useful online resource for uncovering bias. It presents you with several tests and makes deductions based on your answers/reactions to certain situations. We certainly recommend checking it out.

Benefits of a Diverse Workforce

While eliminating unconscious bias may seem like a difficult task, the reward is well worth the effort. Business with a diverse workforce often achieves better results when it comes to productivity, profits, and even other business outcomes. It makes companies a more attractive place to work, helps them recruit and retain top talent and helps them establish a good reputation as an employer and social enterprise. Perhaps more importantly, it also makes the world a bit fairer and ensures that everyone has the same opportunities regardless of their gender, race or background.

Attend Our Diversity & Employment Law Events

Change Recruitment hosts a number of exciting events throughout the year. Our breakfast seminars, hosted in both our Glasgow and Edinburgh offices, focus on relevant HR and recruitment topics like diversity within the workplace, the gig economy, and #MeToo Movement. View our events page to find out more about upcoming seminars and workshops.

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