In a diverse country such as South Africa, where people from different races, culture and backgrounds make up one nation, addressing unconscious bias within organisations is not just a matter of ethical responsibility but also a strategic business imperative. Understanding the different types of unconscious biases and their origins is crucial in creating a more inclusive and equitable work environment.
Defining unconscious bias
According to Wikipedia, “attitudes, stereotypes, prejudices, and bias are all examples of psychological constructs. These psychological constructs are mental associations that can influence a person’s feelings and behaviour toward an individual or group.” These “different” groups can include racial groups, professions, genders, nationalities, members of the LGBTQ community, those with disabilities, or people with dissimilar moral or political values to our own.
- Implicit or unconscious bias is an automatic positive or negative judgment that operates at an unconscious level of awareness. Implicit attitudes can be automatically activated by the mere presence of a particular person or group.
- Any time we group individuals together and make a generalisation or judgment about them without knowing them we are applying a stereotype.
- Prejudice is an opinion, usually an unfavourable one, that is formed before having any evidence and so is not based on reason or experience. Prejudice relates to feelings and attitudes about a person or group that are often rooted in the assumption that they are worth less or inferior.
“Implicit or unconscious bias is an automatic positive or negative judgment that operates at an unconscious level of awareness.”
“It is important to understand that everyone possesses unconscious biases, even people who are trained to think otherwise.”
Unconscious bias is bad for business
It is important to understand that everyone possesses unconscious biases, even people who are trained to think otherwise. However, when biases are left unchecked, they can adversely shape an organisation’s culture and norms. Not only can they negatively impact team dynamics and leadership styles, they can also influence decision-making, hinder diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Bias can affect recruiting, inhibit promotion, and derail employee retention efforts.
Overcoming bias in the workplace and preventing its occurrence requires a comprehensive approach that involves education, awareness and a commitment from the top down to creating an inclusive and unbiased workplace. Here are three steps toward mitigating unconscious bias:
“Overcoming bias in the workplace and preventing its occurrence requires a comprehensive approach that involves education, awareness and a commitment from the top down”
- Become conscious
Educate employees in the types of biases that can occur to bring them to a conscious level so that everyone in the organisation can become aware of how their decision-making may be influenced. These may include:
- Gender bias: the favouring of a particular gender over another.
- Ageism: the stereotyping of, or discrimination against, others based on their age.
- Affinity bias: is the tendency to favor and connect with individuals who share similar backgrounds or interests.
- Halo effect: occurs when a positive impression of an individual influences how they are perceived in other areas of their work, leading to biased performance evaluations.
- Horns effect: occurs when a negative impression of an individual affects how they are perceived in other aspects of their work.
- Perception bias: the tendency to stereotype certain groups without being able to make objective decisions about them.
- Conformity bias: where a person is most likely to lean towards a certain decision if they sense that more than 75% of their group have a particular view.
- Beauty bias: refers to the tendency to favor individuals perceived as more attractive.
2. Re-organise organisational systems and structures
Take a deep dive into existing structures and systems, with the goal of creating more equitable processes and procedures. For example:
- This process can include analysis of the demographics and particular groupings of current and previous employees. A regular diversity audit of the organisation is essential to be accountable.
- Look at your candidate sourcing strategies. How is the organisation bringing in a more diverse pool of potential talent?
- In terms of the recruitment process, evaluate the language used in job postings and processes by which CVs are reviewed the ways in which candidates are compared.
- Equity is about promoting justice, impartiality and fairness. Employee focus groups can be helpful for feedback, where open discussion is framed around fairness and inclusivity.
3. Train leadership to prevent bias in the workplace
Leadership involvement is paramount in mitigating bias in the workplace through setting the tone and driving the efforts to minimise bias. By creating a culture that values diversity and inclusion, leaders can establish a foundation for reducing bias at all levels of the organisation.When leaders actively address bias, it sends a powerful message to the entire workforce that bias will not be tolerated and that everyone is accountable for fostering an inclusive environment.
- To effectively combat bias, organisations should offer leadership development programmes that focus on bias awareness. These programmes should equip management with the knowledge and skills necessary to recognise and challenge their own biases and support their teams in doing the same.
- Leaders should also set an example by exhibiting unbiased behavior in their actions and decisions, influencing others to follow suit.
4. Train employees to recognise and get rid of unconscious bias
When implementing unconscious bias training, there are a few critical points leaders should remember.
- Training should not preach to employees – it is not about blame and shame. Unconscious bias training should foster conversations and allow employees to confront their own biases.
- Training should not imply that people are intentionally racist, sexist or harbour other biases. Their biases, by their very nature, are unconscious and unintentional.
- Training should explain that everyone can be both a victim and a perpetrator of unconscious bias. Regardless of an employees’ protected traits such as race, gender or age, they may also be the victim of bias based on other characteristics, such as height, weight or appearance. It is important to train employees on the variety of different biases they could hold and how to combat them.
- Training should also teach employees tangible steps they can take to make workplaces more inclusive. These actions include avoiding labels and stereotypes, questioning automatic assumptions and setting ground rules for meetings so that everyone is heard.
“Unconscious bias training should foster conversations and allow employees to confront their own biases.”
Bias, whether conscious or unconscious, can hinder the growth of individuals, impede teamwork, and ultimately create a divided and unproductive workforce. Addressing bias in the workplace is a pressing concern for organisations seeking to create inclusive and equitable environments. By recognising the significance of their role in reducing workplace bias, leaders can take proactive steps to avoid and prevent bias while actively cultivating a culture of fairness and inclusivity within the organisation. By actively working to avoid biases in the workplace, organisations can unlock the full potential of their employees, enhance overall satisfaction and attract top talent.