A quick guide to unconscious bias at work: what it is and how to identify it

content unconscious bias

A bias is where you favour one thing over another – be that a person, place or concept. 

There are two types of bias: explicit or conscious, whereby the attitude is considered and deliberate; and implicit or unconscious bias which are based on stereotypes and thoughts that we may not even know we have.

As The University of California, San Francisco, explains: “Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organise social worlds by categorising.”

While they are natural and unintentional, unconscious biases can affect recruitment decisions and possibly lead to a less diverse workforce.

But the nature of unconscious bias means that there is no way to simply turn them off – rather, you have to mitigate against their effects.

One way to do this is through the selection process, for example using blind recruitment. We have more information on this here.

You can also help by raising awareness about unconscious bias and helping your employees to understand what theirs are and how they might affect decision-making. Here are two ways to identify and challenge unconscious bias:

Find out what your biases are

Project Implicit was founded in 1998 by leading scientists in the area of unconscious thoughts and attitudes. Alongside offering training, workshops and lectures on the topic, the organisation also offers a free test, the Implicit Association Test (IAT), to identify unconscious attitudes.

Project Implicit is careful to explain that the purpose of the test is to “raise awareness and encourage self-reflection” – and it cannot be used for “selection” purposes. This means that, for example, you can use the test to make employees aware of implicit bias, but you cannot recruit based on it.

The test is available here. There is also a really useful FAQs page that explains everything from interpreting responses to the accuracy of results.

Challenge the unexpected

In an engaging TED talk – that starts with an interesting visualisation task – , author and former lawyer Valerie Alexander shares some interesting ways you can challenge unconscious beliefs.

Her tips include:

  1. Visualising a situation, such as a meeting, before going into it. Whatever image your brain conjures, change it, she says.
  2. Analyse your behaviour. “Ask yourself: ‘Is this how I would handle this interaction if this person looked like me? Or if this person did not look like me?’,” she advises.
  3. Experience things that are unexpected, but do not need to be. “We normalise things by making them expected,” she says.

Throughout this, it is important to remember that unconscious bias is natural and one of the best ways to avoid it is to raise awareness about it.

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