Charles Brecque

Charles Brecque


June 20, 2023

Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

What unconscious bias is, its negative impact on the workplace and organisational longevity and best practices to eradicate it.

Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Unconscious bias – everyone has at least one! It’s the instinctive preference for one thing over another; like cats over dogs, or whether pineapple goes on pizza. There’s no science behind what causes them – it’s just how people are wired.

In these contexts, biases are relatively harmless. However when those biases extend to other people and are based on preference for one gender, race, or body type over another, things can get very unpleasant very quickly.

In this article, we’re going to explore the concept of unconscious bias in the workplace, and in doing so take a look at:

  • What unconscious bias in the workplace is
  • Why it’s important to be mindful of it
  • How to address its presence in the company.

Let’s get straight into it!

What is Unconscious Bias in the Workplace?

Unconscious bias in the workplace is where certain individuals will be selected for positions or tasks based on their appearance rather than their capability.

In the UK, only 1% of building site workers are women. 11% of the entire construction industry in the UK is made up of women, but 87% of them are in administrative or secretarial roles.

In the US, 11% of women were employed in construction. People with ‘ethnic-sounding’ names are also less likely to be contacted for their job applications than people with ‘white-sounding’ names.

In these situations, there is no assessment of what the person’s capabilities are – only what their name or gender is.

Why Companies Need to Pay Attention to Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

There are a number of reasons why unconscious bias can be problematic:

It Can Impact Diversity and Inclusion Efforts

If you’re trying to be a more diverse employer but only employing people of a certain type, you’re going to fail at your goals. If you want to be inclusive, you actually need to attract and include marginalised people.

It Can Contribute to Discriminatory Practices and Outcomes

If you only hire people in a certain group because they fit that group, and not because they’re the best person to do the job, it’s discrimination.

While it is illegal on a global scale to only hire particular groups of people, it still happens all too frequently.

It Can Hinder Team Collaboration and Productivity

It’s not enough to simply hire inclusively. Unconscious bias creates an environment where bullying flourishes.

This creates toxic working environments. Racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and so on are all massive barriers to team cohesion and the ability to work collaboratively.

It May Create an Unfair and Unequal Work Environment

If a manager’s unconscious bias prioritises one type of person over another despite a lack of ability, it can contribute to failing up.

There can also be harsher penalties for people that make the same errors as the individual who is failing up, and fewer opportunities for training and advancement.

It Can Limit Access to Opportunities for Certain Individuals or Groups

If someone’s unconscious bias affects their hiring methods, they’re automatically denying opportunities to anyone else – regardless of whether or not they can do the job.

33% of UK women trade workers say that they’ve turned up to a job, only to be turned away.

It Can Negatively Affect Employee Engagement and Retention

Nobody wants to work in a place where they’re made to feel unwelcome all the time.

It has a massive negative impact on people’s health and mental well-being. It can also impact the organisation’s ability to hire people.

It Can Undermine the Potential for Achieving Business Success and Growth

Organisations that let their unconscious biases dictate their business methods run the risk of losing partnership opportunities and new clients.

Organisations will protect their reputation and distance themselves from those that are seen as problematic.

How to Address Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

It’s easy to make sure unconscious bias doesn’t become a problem at your organisation. Here are a few different ways to do so:

Conducting Unconscious Bias Training and Education

The thing about unconscious bias is that it’s unconscious.

People don’t recognise it in themselves until they know what to look for! Training your people to understand what unconscious bias is and how it manifests will make your workplace run a lot smoother.

Hold Employees Accountable

Accountability is a major part of making sure your workplace is inclusive. If an employee is letting their unconscious biases make others feel uncomfortable, they need to know that it’s not acceptable.

Establishing Objective and Measurable Performance Metrics

If the performance metrics for a task differ from person to person, or they rely on nebulous concepts that aren’t clearly defined, it’s simply not fair. You’re setting people up to fail!

Encouraging Open Communication and Feedback

You’re not going to be able to tell if your workplace is running ok if people don’t tell you.

Your staff needs to feel like they can talk freely and frankly to you about things that might not be going so well without fear of recrimination or lack of action.

Providing Opportunities for Professional Development and Advancement

Making sure that development opportunities are offered to all of the people in your organisation is the best way to make sure everyone has the same opportunity for advancement.

Promoting Diversity and Inclusivity at All Levels of the Company

Actively include people of all genders, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and people with disabilities in your leadership teams.

This makes sure your organisation has relevant input and feedback that will help it grow and change with time, instead of stagnating.

Analysing and Addressing Pay and Promotion Disparities

Women still get paid less money than men for doing the same job, despite it being illegal. Ensuring pay and promotion equity will mean that your workplace is fair and law-abiding.

Creating a Culture of Awareness and Accountability

Pulling people up on inappropriate behaviour can be difficult, as it can make the person being pulled up defensive.

If people come to you with their issues, make sure the matter is dealt with swiftly and tactfully.

Regularly Evaluating and Updating Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives

The world is in a state of constant change.

What might have been acceptable behaviour a year ago may be unacceptable now. Staying on top of what your organisation needs to do in terms of diversity and inclusion will make sure you stay relevant.

The Bottom Line

Inclusion and diversity in the workplace is the best way to make sure your business flourishes.

There is a wealth of experience and ideas that have been passed over because of unconscious bias, and we’re starting to see the negative impacts of those biases in terms of sustainability and organisational longevity. The writing on the wall is very clear: Unconscious bias has no place in the workplace!

The opinions on this page are for general information purposes only and do not constitute legal advice on which you should rely.

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