Is Unconscious Bias a Hidden Adversary Within Your Business?

Transforming Culture

6th October 2021

Did you know that it’s common for identical twins to become less and less physically similar as they age? The science behind this is that although identical twins may share the same DNA, we are all unique products of our environment and experiences as much as we are our genetics.

Just as what we’ve done, where we’ve been and how we’ve lived influence our appearance and personality, it’s our collections of unique experiences, circumstances and environments that shape our unconscious biases.

However we may perceive ourselves, our thought processes, convictions and ethics, none of us are in control of how our unconscious minds organise the world into categories we aren’t even really aware of.

What is unconscious bias?

It is the part of our subconscious minds that influences how we think and how we make decisions. Whether we like it or not, we all hold prejudices and preferences – and we often refer to them as a “gut feeling” or “instinct”.

Unconscious bias is the reason that even when people claim not to hold prejudices, in a situation where they need to make split-second decisions their unconscious bias will be unveiled. Often unbeknownst to them.

For example, when assigning a project that may involve overnight travel, you may subconsciously discount a female employee who once had to prioritise a family commitment ahead of work, even though planned trips away wouldn’t be an issue for her.

We most often think of unconscious bias as relating to age, gender, race or ethnicity. It does often relate to these demographics, but not always in an overt way.

When interviewing potential candidates, finding a lot of common ground with a particular candidate may make their interview seem better than other more qualified candidates, simply because of your affinity. This kind of bias, known as affinity bias, can most impact diversity statistics because if we favour people who are like us, share our background and experiences, we are automatically discriminating against people who *aren’t* like us.

Why does eliminating unconscious bias impact profitability?

The links between unconscious bias and profit only indicate correlation and cannot prove causation. But inferential statistics like these are still incredibly important drivers for change.

There’s probably a myriad of reasons why there’s a link between eliminating unconscious bias and increasing diversity that can positively impact the bottom line. Including but not limited to:

Customer satisfaction

A popular theory is that a diverse workforce can best serve a diverse customer base. When businesses are largely composed of people who look the same and have the same experiences, they often leave diverse ideas and perspectives behind.

You can best serve the end user by building a team that represents and relates to them. A homogenous group of people might fail to recognise or understand pain points for certain demographics of a customer base and therefore miss out on opportunities to create a fantastic customer experience. We all know that improved customer experience equals improved profitability.

Attracting talent

Diversity and inclusion are really important to people these days. Particularly – without falling foul of our own unconscious age bias here – millennials and generation Z.

70% of job-seekers say they value a company’s commitment to diversity when evaluating potential employers. So to attract – and keep – top talent from all demographics, your business must demonstrate commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Innovation

The data is clear on the relationship between innovation and profitability. Innovation helps firms produce new brands, strengthen their position in the market, gain a competitive advantage, and boost productivity.

Diverse teams are the best place to drive innovation through diversity of experience, thought process and skillset.

Inclusive culture

The most important reason that eliminating unconscious bias and improving diversity in a business provides a competitive advantage is that inclusivity goes hand-in-hand with businesses that care about their people and their culture. An inclusive, self-aware, welcoming and supportive leadership team makes for a winning culture. A winning culture makes for a committed, productive and engaged workforce. A committed, productive, and engaged workforce equals – you guessed it – bigger profits.

For further learning, download our guide on how to make your organisation more inclusive.

Identify where unconscious bias is holding your business back

One particular area where unconscious bias can plague businesses is in the recruitment process. A study in 2011 that involved sending out more than 13,000 imaginary CVs in response to 3,000 real job ads showed that despite possessing identical skills and experience, individuals with names that seemed to be from ethnic minorities needed to send an average of 60% more CVs to receive the same number of positive responses as those with Anglican-sounding names.

For some ethnic groups, it was as high as 80% more.

You can take a test using Harvard’s psychological unconscious bias testing device, Project Implicit. The project is a global study on social attitudes and implicit associations. Here you can identify your level of unconscious bias based on age, gender, race, skin tone and ethnicity amongst others.

It’s very interesting to gain insight into how unconscious bias works and understand the intricate psychological barriers towards achieving true equality and a level playing field in business and other areas of society. It’s simply not even possible to just decide not to be biased, or unsubscribe from any of the isms. It’s unsettlingly ingrained in the deepest layers of our culture and social frameworks.

However, this does not absolve individuals or organisations from responsibility. There is no throwing our hands up, there is only intentionality, self-interrogation and hard work.

How can you eliminate unconscious bias?

So now you know why diversity and inclusion in the workplace are important, and you know that unconscious bias can stand in the way of that, how do you fight against this hidden adversary?

Simply being aware of unconscious bias isn’t enough to overcome its effects on decision-making, but it’s the only place to start.

Accepting that unconscious bias exists, that we all have our prejudices and mental shortcuts when assessing situations and people, is the first step. Helping people identify what these biases are and when they might be open to influence from them is the next step.

Then, it’s about understanding unconscious bias and giving yourself and the people you work with the tools and courage to overcome their challenges and coming up with strategies to overcome them.

For example, if we can identify recruitment as a particular danger zone where unconscious bias can lead to discrimination and stand in the way of diversity and inclusivity, how can you eradicate unconscious bias from your recruitment methodology? Do you need to make all CVs blind before they are shortlisted? After shortlisting, what then? Do you need to diversify your interview panel? Would outsourcing to a business with expertise in this area help?

…then, once you’ve recruited the right hire, how do you include them? How do you value and make it safe for them? How do you keep them?


Find out more about our unconscious bias solution for insight into what it means to create a work environment that has the courage and competence to identify, address and overcome unconscious bias.