October 02.2018, 9.00am

Nature or Nurture: Eliminating Unconscious Bias In the Workplace

One of the biggest misconceptions about unconscious bias is that it’s simply a form of bigotry or chauvinism. Mahzarin Banaji, one of the researchers who formed the theory of unconscious bias, recently pointed out that it’s a much more complex form of social conditioning.

Implicit bias causes individuals to sort people of different genders, colours, creeds or sexualities into groups based on the inherent prejudice that exists in any given culture. So a person of a certain colour could still have an implicit bias towards a person of the same colour if that implicit bias exists in the wider culture.

It’s a symptom of culture but it’s also a learned phenom. The good news is that it can be unlearned if people engage in rational deliberation. Eliminating unconscious bias in the workplace means creating a culture in which we acknowledge the problem and take proactive steps to tackle it.

Taking steps to change

Diversity in the workplace is not just the right thing to do – it also helps your bottom line. Having a diverse workplace drives profits increases productivity and gives you a much-needed range of perspectives within your organisation. Achieving that diversity means first assessing whether an unconscious bias is at work within your organisation.

Gender pay gap reporting has shone a light on the gender pay imbalances in many companies since its introduction. If women in your workplace are being consistently paid less than men in equivalent positions, it’s a sign that unconscious bias is at work.

Data shows that the three biggest gender equality issues are men occupying more senior roles, men and women occupying different types of roles, and the residual effect of men traditionally getting paid more than their female colleagues. Addressing these problems requires proactive action from HR and organisational leaders.

It’s also been proven that LGBTQ professionals and other minorities have to work harder to achieve the same progression as straight white males. Working with minority employees to help them communicate their career successes is one way to challenge misconceptions. Adopting a transparent approach to diversity is another.

Conduct surveys to measure diversity understanding among your workers and take steps to amplify diverse voices in your workplace. Adding more diversity at board level can help to foster it from the top down by providing potential mentors from across a range of backgrounds and demographics. This can start the conversation and begin to challenge both unconscious and conscious biases.

Set organisational diversity targets to hit within specified deadlines, use data sets and technology to introduce objective appraisals, and show managers responsible for hiring and promotion their track records when it comes to hiring/promoting minorities or under-represented groups. This can uncover patterns or trends and force managers to reassess their decision-making processes or question their unconscious biases.

Eliminating prejudice in your workplace

Sometimes we think we’re doing the right thing, but unconscious bias can still find a way to influence our thinking. Researchers from MIT and Indiana University discovered that organisations that explicitly presented themselves as meritocracies were actually more biased against women in their evaluations and in rewarding merit.

One approach to creating a level playing field is the introduction of blind interviews for potential candidates. Altering job descriptions can also make a difference.

Changing just one word in a job description can result in a more diverse range of candidates. Similarly, something as simple as introducing the words “salary negotiable” to a job description was found to close the negotiation gap between men and women, as the latter were otherwise less inclined to negotiate.

One of the hardest things to do is to prove the existence of unconscious bias but HR analytics offer the means to do so. Looking at interviews, benchmarks, objective measures and data analysis can reveal best practices and areas for improvement when it comes to hiring, promoting and retaining a diverse talent pool.

Recognising our own unconscious bias is key to altering behaviours. HR needs to develop a culture that prioritises core value systems based on equality and fair treatment for all. Theatres in the UK have introduced training to help people to, “recognise and mitigate their personal unconscious bias.” Training can make employees more aware of their own behaviour but ultimately you need to work towards creating a culture in which this type of self-awareness is cultivated and rewarded.

Technology can shatter our biases

The advent of artificial intelligence recruitment software suggests that we could look forward to a future in which conscious or unconscious biases are bypassed or eliminated. AI is not a silver bullet but machine learning can deconstruct unconscious preconceptions by identifying the ideal attributes of high performers. Talent management platforms, recruitment software and predictive analytics are giving HR leaders new datasets and performance metrics to measure the attributes of employee success.

HR analytics empower us by identifying a cause-and-effect relationship between what HR does and the resulting business outcomes, letting us then develop strategies based on that information. Talent management software now allows us to see who is doing what, which employees exhibit the traits of future stars and what metrics translate into latent potential.

The future workplace will be built on numbers and data, not hunches or stereotypes. Modern HR technology is ushering in an age of workforce analytics and data-driven decisions. With a weight of evidence undermining irrational instincts or cultural prejudices, there’s plenty of reason to expect that greater workforce diversity and a more enlightened workplace culture will eventually become the norm.

Deirdre PluckBy Deirdre Pluck