Business Irish

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Business Brain: Avoid falling into the trap of using 'unconscious bias' in the workplace

Brenda Dooley

Published 24/09/2013 | 11:44

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It is well accepted that a diverse workforce offers greater competitive advantage. Many large organisations pursue active diversity and inclusion programmes to ensure that they capture and capitalise on all available talent.

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Supporting the diversity agenda is a raft of equality legislation designed to protect workers. Most employers take great care not to consciously discriminate against current or prospective employees. So, if diversity has been supported legally and proceduralised within organisations, why don't all workers feel they are basking in the warmth of inclusive work cultures? The answer may lie in the notion of Unconscious or Implicit Bias and it is getting increasing attention in the corporate world.

Unconscious biases exist within each of us. They are automatic and a product of our upbringing and experiences. They act as filters in our decision making. We are hard-wired to process information and make decisions based on certain schemas. While we might think that most of our decisions are rational, many of them stem from our unconscious and we then find facts to justify or rationalise those decisions.

Where other people are concerned, we tend to make positive or negative judgements based on our implicit biases which can often be in direct conflict with what we believe are our conscious attitudes. Each of us has our own preferences -- we relate and gravitate towards those who we believe are like us or have something in common with us -- known as affinity bias.

The converse can also occur where we have difficulty relating to those who possess different traits or characteristics. One can see how this can impact behaviour in the workplace -- we all know of cases where the 'boss's favourite' got the more interesting jobs, the bigger pay rise and the higher bonus. Great, if you happened to be the favourite.

Unconscious bias is being raised as a significant factor in the gender imbalance that exists in leadership roles within organisations. According to the latest research from the International Business Report, women constitute 35pc of the global workforce and 24pc of senior management roles (21pc in Ireland). Organisations such as Dell, Microsoft, PWC, Deloitte, and Citi are including unconscious bias training as part of their diversity initiatives in order to achieve greater parity in recruitment and advancement of their female workforce.

But it's not just about the gender agenda or about the large corporates. Achieving greater diversity is also important for the SME sector and unconscious bias is an issue there too. Imagine the scenario: a small business owner seeking to expand the business decides to hire a sales person. Two people are interviewed, both of whom have worked in competitor organisations, one is from the same county as the owner and plays GAA for a local club, while the other has no interest in team sports, is a little overweight but has a great sales record. The owner is a keep-fit fanatic and a keen GAA fan and immediately clicks with the first candidate, but can't seem to relate in the same way with the second despite the fact that this applicant brings better skills and experience.

The owner goes with the first one and rationalises the decision by telling herself that this person would fit in better than the second, who looks lazy and clearly can't be a team player if he doesn't like sports. Six months on and the new hire is the life and soul of the office, gets on great with everyone but isn't bringing in the expected numbers.

A simple example, but it can and does happen where managers, without even knowing it, make judgements and assumptions about people based on their internal or implicit biases towards or against them.

Our unconscious biases can cause us to stereotype on the basis of factors such as, schools, colleges, accents, qualifications, home addresses, political affiliations, body art, sports, attractiveness, height, weight, or dress -- the list goes on and on.

The key to addressing unconscious bias in the workplace is self-awareness. When assessing people, whether it's for recruitment, promotion, or performance, be more aware of your natural tendency for bias, ensure your decisions are made on the basis of facts and evidence, and open your mind to the value that difference can bring.

Never hire someone into your organisation without establishing clear requirements in terms of skills, experience, and knowledge relevant to the business and to the role.

Stick to those specifications and never, ever make the final decision without a second opinion and at least ask yourself if your natural biases have influenced your decision in any way. Likewise, if you are considering promotions, bonuses or pay rises, make sure you do it purely on the basis of merit and fairness.

We can't eliminate unconscious bias, but through self-awareness, we can reduce its effects to ensure that we make rational decisions about people, particularly when their jobs and careers are in our hands. You have the power and the responsibility, so handle with care.

Brenda Dooley is an executive coach and HR consultant. www.brendadooley.ie Twitter: @brendadooley1.

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