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Biased? What me?

The HR Dept Solihull

Do you think you are biased?  I think you are, and I don’t even know most of you personally.   How can I say that?  Well I’m biased too and whilst I don’t like to admit it, I have to accept it. As humans we are hard wired to be biased.  The thing is, many of our biases are unconscious, we don’t even realise we’re being biased.    

So, what do we mean by bias?  There is conscious bias (explicit) and unconscious bias (implicit). This happens when we favour one person or group compared to another. Unconscious bias is more common, is subtle and is often incompatible with our conscious values.  There are many types of bias in the workplace, the most talked about and researched examples are those based on race and gender. There are others too such as beauty bias, height bias and weight bias.

How does unconscious bias happen?  To put it simply, our unconscious minds process vast amounts of information every day about people and categorizes it to allow us to make quick decisions.  These categories create social stereotypes about certain groups of people influenced by our background, our cultural environment, and our personal experiences. These stereotypes are deeply ingrained, not based on fact or evidence and are often wrong.

Question.  What if you needed to change a car tyre?  Do you think your unconscious mind would automatically think about asking a man or a woman?  Why?

Is unconscious bias a bad thing? Not necessarily but it can be.  For example, our biases can affect our decisions at work especially around recruitment, promotion, performance management, who we choose to stop and search and who we decide to give custodial sentences to. It may affect the decisions that govern our institutions.  Some of those decisions may be harmless but at their most extreme, those decisions could be illegal or even life threatening. 

What are the most common types of bias in the workplace?

  • Affinity - Tendency to be warmer towards people like us.
  • Attribution – If a person does something well, they are lucky but if they have done something badly it’s due to their personality or bad behaviours.
  • Horns – We focus on one negative aspect about someone to the exclusion of everything else about them.
  • Halo – Tendency to think everything good about a person because we like them.
  • Conformity – Group think. Our view and opinions are swayed as we try to fit in with the group.
  • Confirmation – We form an opinion first then look for evidence to back it up.

 Can we do anything about it?  

  1. We need to be able to recognise the different types of bias in the workplace.
  2. Think about the situations where bias could come into play.
  3. Make sure employees and decision makers receive some training in unconscious bias.
  4. Put in place appropriate strategies to mitigate against bias and keep them under review.

Making people aware of their biases and providing training isn’t going to miraculously make people behave better at work. If someone is not interested in understanding and preventing their unconscious bias in the workplace there isn’t a great deal you can do about it. What you could do though is keep reinforcing your mitigation strategies.   This should limit the damage that bias can create in our workplaces and ultimately in our society more generally.  Something that many of us are calling for right now.

Some employers have been doing some great work on unconscious bias.  If you haven’t addressed this issue before and would like some help to train your managers, update your policies and procedure or provide advice more generally, please get in touch with me at the HR Dept.  

Want to check whether you’re biased?  Take the test.

If you want to see whether you have any bias, then you can take the Harvard Implicit Association Test which measures people’s preferences for certain social groups over others.  These associations may be made between ‘black’ and ‘white’, ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ etc. 

Erica Burke
The HR Dept Solihull