What is unconscious bias?

Every one of us is prejudiced in ways we may not realise. These prejudices affect how we interact with people on a daily basis, especially in the workplace. As a result of our behaviour, we could be limiting not only our own success but that of those around us.

As a manager of a business, we hold a certain amount of power, and as such, we have responsibility as well. It’s important to recognise and address our biases so that we offer everyone that works for or with us the same equal opportunities. There are plenty of reasons to do this. Beyond the principle in fairness, addressing biases helps us improve the diversity of our organisations, and that comes with its own benefits: diverse companies are more likely to have higher financial returns by up to 35%.

This diversity should reflect a host of attributes, from age to ethnicity and educational background to body type. But among the most prominent is gender. Here, diversity can pay off more than most. It’s naturally easier to connect with, and sell to, women if you’re not an entirely male company. And with women accounting for 85% of all consumer purchasing decisions, that’s a section of the market no one can afford to overlook!

So how can we make ourselves aware of and address these in-built preconceptions? Many people are still in the dark over these ideas - 39% of UK hiring managers haven’t received training in unconscious bias best practices. And you’d be forgiven for thinking that its very name suggests that there’s nothing we can do about unconscious biases - in fact, by reading this you’ve taken the first steps towards counteracting them already.

Unconscious bias affects four key areas of the workplace

While our brains are taking shortcuts and making snap judgments and decisions all the time, when it comes to work, there are certain activities where biases can have the biggest impact, and it’s here that we need to look most carefully at our behaviours.

Those activities are:

  • Hiring employees;

  • Delegating and assigning work;

  • Evaluating employee performance;

  • Determining compensation.

It’s important to recognise the judgements, actions, and consequences that can arise during these business activities to ensure unconscious biases are given due consideration.

Recognise the judgments you make as a manager

Biases and stereotypes are part of our brain’s processing - it’s efficient to use past experiences or preconceived notions to evaluate new people based on whatever information we can obtain about them. This means we take into account skin colour, gender, age, and lots more as soon as we meet someone. What’s important is to avoid using these instant observations to make decisions.

Do you rely on unconscious bias?

There are plenty of “leaps” our brains might make, so review the following statements to see if any apply to you.

  • Candidates who attended the same university as me must be good.

  • I make men work later than women.

  • Hiring young people is risky as they’ll likely quit soon.

  • I assign physical tasks to men and creative ones to women.

  • People from certain countries are more punctual/hardworking/friendly employees.

  • I have a few favourite employees that I rely on.

What are the effects of unconscious biases?

Making decisions based on these sort of judgments can have significant effects. While the financial impact of diversity has already been stated, the underlying reasons could include a poor workplace culture stemming from a lack of diversity, failing to secure the most talented employees by making biased hiring decisions, or even negatively impacting your business’s image and reputation as a fair employer.

How you can avoid unconscious bias as a manager

Whatever business and management activities you’re engaged in, your behaviour can be dictated by bias, so use these tips to sidestep the pitfalls.

Keep communication professional, neutral, and clear

When talking to job candidates, focus on relevant experience and skills. Remove gender, ethnicity, and background from the process as much as possible. A simple way to do this is “name-blind” CV screening, where you judge resumes without candidates’ names, thus avoiding gender and cultural biases.

In your communication with employees, use gender neutral terms, being wary of slip-ups like inviting “employees and wives” to an office party. Be respectful of other cultures. Having a flexible scheduling tool like Findmyshift can allow employees to book time off for holidays you may not be aware of.  

Clarify responses instead of making assumptions and avoid slang, acronyms, or jargon that may alienate those from different backgrounds.

Give equal opportunities

Be careful not to assume that certain jobs are for certain types of people. For example, don’t exclude women from physical tasks or assume men are more likely to drive or relocate. Find out what your employees’ skillsets are rather than making judgments based on who you think they are.

Make decisions based on performance rather than personal traits

Even similar traits can be interpreted differently; assertive men can be considered confident while the same characteristic in women is seen as pushiness. To avoid judgments like this, stick to objective performance measures, i.e. whether the employee is meeting specific goals like sales numbers, punctuality targets, or customer satisfaction ratings. Use data to evaluate performance and you’re far more likely to get an accurate picture than relying on how much you like or relate to someone.

If you can keep all these points in mind, you’ll be well on your way to not only recognising but addressing your unconscious bias, and your management success will improve accordingly. Good luck!

About the author

Jake Waller is a wordsmith who plies his trade here at Findmyshift. He uses his background in engineering to simplify complex topics for a variety of tech firms. When not writing for Findmyshift he blogs under a pseudonym at My Name is Skylance and has a passion for creative writing and editing, about which he's always talking on Twitter.