Is unconscious bias having an impact on your business?

A riddle to start this week’s blog:

A father is driving his only son to school one morning. On the way, their car is involved in an accident and the father died on the way to the hospital.

The boy is rushed in for life saving surgery.

The surgeon walks into the operating room, takes one look at the boy and says: “I can’t operate on this child, he is my son!”

How is this possible?

This is the question that was posed at an event I attended last week on the subject of unconscious bias. There was much muttering and scratching of heads among the HR folk present – until the light (for a few) suddenly dawned.

The answer is really quite simple – the surgeon is the boy’s mother.

Hands up those of you who automatically assumed the surgeon was a man? You’re certainly not alone. In the room last week the majority of delegates (women included) had made exactly the same assumption – a telling illustration of just how strong our unconscious biases really are.

Of course we’d all like to think that we are fair and objective, but the reality is that everyone has biases – whether they are aware of them or not. For example, we naturally tend to gravitate towards people with whom we feel safe, or who we perceive ‘think like us’.

As Sneha Khilay of Blue Tulip Training explained, what happens is that over time we build up particular thought patterns and associations which cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people, based on characteristics such as race, gender, age, and appearance.

These ‘mind bugs’ become ingrained in our subconscious and act a bit like a lens, filtering out other relevant information, leading us to jump to conclusions, and allowing our key preferences and biases to come to the fore.

In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell shows how prevalent unconscious bias is in the business world: despite only 14.5% of the U.S. population measuring in at six foot or over, that number increases to 58% when looking only at CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Being aware of this is particularly important in a work setting, where if we are not careful, our unconscious biases can have a huge impact on the decisions we make about who to recruit, who to promote and how we performance manage people.

There are many different types of bias, five of the most common are listed below. Can you think of an occasion when you have been guilty of any of these?:

• Affinity Bias: otherwise known as ‘mini-me’ syndrome. So in a recruitment scenario, we might choose a certain candidate because they are ‘great fit’ and would ‘blend in’.

• Truth/Confirmation Bias: this is where we constantly look for ways to ‘back up’ our biases, i.e. if a person is overweight we perceive they must be lazy and look for examples of when they are not being productive.

• Status Bias: where we make judgements about what people can do, whether we include them, and how we treat them based on how ‘important’ we perceive them to be. So if you announce yourself in company reception as ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ Smith, you will probably get a very different response to if you announced yourself as Alex Smith (hands up again who assumed Dr/Professor Alex Smith was male?).

• Perception Bias: a tendency to put people into categories, so we might think that a slim person must be energetic, or that a young man wearing a hoodie is bound to be aggressive.

• Beauty Bias: where people are recruited because they are attractive rather than because of their skills and qualities. So one candidate may be chosen over another for a role in reception because they will provide ‘eye candy’ for the clients (several people in room confirmed that this really does happen!)

The whole subject of unconscious bias is one that the business world is really beginning to take seriously. Not only does it limit diversity within organisations (and all the knowledge and insight a diverse workforce can bring), it can also have a damaging effect on engagement, productivity and performance.

The CIPD points to some key actions you can take to limit the impact of unconscious bias:

• Accept that you and everyone else have biases

• Be honest about your biases: try not to simply choose your more socially acceptable biases to discuss and address

• Raise awareness of unconscious bias within your business, the impact it has and what can be done to manage or counter it.

• Arrange testing so that you and others are aware of the type and strength of their unconscious biases

• Encourage people to be honest about their biases and to act to manage or control them

• Avoid demonising bias and preventing others from discussing (but not just expressing) their biases.

• Avoid emotive language or confrontational training. The evidence is that this has no impact on bias and often just makes it worse.

Have you thought about what unconscious biases may be coming into play in your decisions? Are you making attempts to tackle unconscious bias in your business? Let us know in the comment section or tweet us at @CezanneHR

Information courtesy of Blue Tulip Training

Want to read more? Check out our blog on creating a dream workplace.

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