The unmasking of ‘unconscious bias’

Starbucks closed their US stores recently to provide training for their staff in unconscious bias, following an incident in one of their stores.  What is it and how can recognising and dealing with unconscious bias help us in business and our everyday life?

What it is

Implicit or unconscious bias happens when our brains make incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us realising. Our biases are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

From an early age, we are taught, we read, hear and see things in the media and from others around us that include stereotypes.  The brain then uses this when making quick decisions, when we are not thinking.  This is not intentional and we are mostly unaware of this unconscious bias, but it happens.  It can often result in discriminatory behaviour, which though, unintentional, is still discrimination and unlawful and could land your business in an employment tribunal.

Where do you see it in business?

It has been proved that making snap judgements or decisions can influence the recruitment, promotion, recognition and development of others.   For example, people favour others who look like them, have a similar education, are from the same area or are the same ethnicity as them.

Sometimes a positive or negative trait is transferred onto a person, without any evidence or objective reason. Behaviour which reinforces the bias is noticed whilst behaviour which doesn’t, is ignored.

Studies have shown:

  • CVs with white sounding names sometimes receive a more positive response;
  • In scientific institutions male applicants were rated as significantly more competent and hireable than female applicants, were given a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring than females
  • In healthcare, racial bias influences medical decision making

Cost to Business

  • The wrong candidate being selected and the hire potentially not working out and the cost of rehiring
  • Overlooking skilled and competent people, demotivating individuals and potentially losing them to competitors
  • A discrimination claim (which is uncapped)
  • A less diverse workforce, that all share similar characteristics and views, but are not reflective of your client/customer base and able to relate to them

What can we do?

  • Raise awareness (interactive workshops) so individuals recognise how unconscious bias can influence their judgements and decision making and how to take steps to overcome it;
  • Make sure we make ‘conscious’ decisions which are controlled and well reasoned;
  • Develop concrete, objective indicators & outcomes for recruiting, promoting, recognising and developing our people;
  • Keep monitoring your processes for decision making and raising awareness on an ongoing basis.

And finally – recently, the low number of women on FTSE Boards has also been attributed to unconscious bias so it remains a very relevant and topical issue and one that businesses should address as a matter of urgency.



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