Unconscious biases - a barrier to unlocking potential in the workplace


This blog post has been produced for the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce as part of the 2019 Growth Through People campaign.

Growth Through People is the Chamber’s annual campaign aiming to help local firms boost productivity and grow through improved leadership and people management skills. In 2019 this involves 15 free events, workshops and training sessions taking place between 25th February and 26th March, along with thought leadership videos and blog content such as this.

Thanks to our Sponsors – the University of Birmingham, Aston University, Curium Solutions and CIPD - all events are free to attend. Interested readers can find out more here.

Unconscious Bias is an automatic decision-making process. We categorise people into “in-groups” and “out-groups”, not only on visual similarities but on factors such as accent, education and religion.  We make more effort for those in our in-group, whom we view as individuals, than for members of an out-group, who we usually regard as “all the same”. Unconscious biases are our unintentional people preferences….

We all have unconscious biases, influenced by our backgrounds and experiences, which impact on our everyday interactions with others. So, in the workplace, when making decisions that affect others – colleagues and customers – if left unchecked, your unconscious biases will influence:

  • Who you listen to most intently / who you disregard most easily
  • How good you think someone is at their job and/or how good you think someone would be at a job for which they are applying
  • How encouraging or discouraging your body language is towards different people
  • Who you assign credit / blame to
  • Who is encouraged / discouraged to apply for promotion
  • Who is trusted with the most high-profile work
  • Who receives positive / less-positive appraisals

The Role of Micro-Behaviours 

Unconscious bias can often show up in our micro-behaviours - the little things that we say and do which show how we regard those around us. These micro-behaviours can have an enormous impact on whether people feel valued and included in a team or organisation, or whether they feel excluded and unappreciated.

Micro-inequities are type of micro-behaviour that may or may not relate to an employee’s protected characteristic/s.  Examples of micro-inequities include:

  • Constantly interrupting or talking over someone
  • Leaving someone out of a discussion
  • Not being fully engaged during a conversation with someone – looking at watch / or phone
  • Not being introduced at a meeting
  • Being excluded from eye contact in a group
  • Change in voice pitch, volume or rate
  • Change in body posture
  • Change in hand movement and gestures
  • Fake, masked or forced smiles

Micro-aggressions are the everyday verbal, non-verbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their protected characteristic/s.

Examples of Micro-aggressions:

  • To a female CEO: “Can I speak with your boss?”
  • To a man who’s a nurse: “Wow, you don’t see many male nurses.”
  • To an LGBT intern: “Huh, you don’t look gay.”
  • To a non-white colleague – in a mostly white office: “So, where are you from? …No, I mean, where are you reallyfrom?”

An accumulation of these microaggressions can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of alienation and eventually even mental health issues. They can also create a toxic work environment.

To bring out the best in the people you manage and to help them to develop to their fullest potential it is imperative that you develop an awareness of where your biases lie. We all make judgements of others within the first 7 seconds of meeting them. These judgements will be influenced by our unconscious biases, therefore it is important to mistrust first impressions. 

Developing an awareness of your micro-behaviours will help you to manage your interactions with others ensuring they are positive, fair and equitable. Finally, review decisions you make, relying on facts rather than assumptions or hearsay to get the best outcomes for individuals and the business.

Paula Whelan
Head of Performance Learning