Unconscious Bias – what have we learned from decades of research and diversity programmes?
Unconscious Bias is a subject that is out in the zeitgeist. This should come as no surprise as unconscious bias in is an important human characteristic that affects all of us, particularly when it comes to hiring, performance reviews and promotion.
In 2008 Diversity Consultant, Howard Ross, wrote a compelling paper “CDO Insights: Proven Strategies for Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace,” Diversity Best Practices, 2008. http://www.cookross.com/docs/UnconsciousBias.pdf. He cited some apparently absurd but real examples of how unconscious bias seeps in to our lives every day:
“It seems not only unfair, but patently absurd to choose a CEO because of height, just like it is unfair and absurd to give employees lower performance evaluations solely because they are overweight. Or to prescribe medical procedures to people more often because of their race. Or to treat the same people in different ways because of their clothing. Or even to call on boys more often than girls when they raise their hands in school. And yet, all of these things continuously happen, and they are but a small sampling of the hundreds of ways we make decisions every day in favor of one group, and to the detriment of others, without even realizing we’re doing it.”
At this point that it is worth remembering that unconscious bias is a natural human characteristic. That is clearly stated by Howard Ross in his 2008 paper and proven in behavioural science. He wrote, “Ultimately, we believe our decisions are consistent with our conscious beliefs, when in fact, our unconscious is running the show.”
Looking further back, as long ago as 1973 MIT Professor, Mary Rowe began to explore the damage caused my micro-inequities, which are the small, seemingly insignificant behaviours that have a corrosive effect on the workplace and professional relationships. http://mrowe.scripts.mit.edu/Publications.html. She defined micro-inequities as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur whenever people are perceived to be different.”
In 2015 the CIPD produced a very comprehensive report which highlighted how unconscious bias in its various forms hinders good decision making in recruitment, whereby hirers still largely rely on intuitive rather than rational judgement: https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/a-head-for-hiring_2015-behavioural-science-of-recruitment-and-selection_tcm18-9557.pdf.
Howard Ross, Mary Rowe and the CIPD provided excellent insight and recommendations on how to tackle unconscious bias. Their material is well worth reading for business leaders, HR professionals, hirers and recruiters.
With the long-standing importance given to unconscious bias, how has the workplace evolved to tackle it? In November 2017 I ran a leadership workshop for REED which asked that very question: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/leadership-workshop-networking-event-jim-whelan/. The event was attended by 36 senior HR professionals and provided some very interesting insight and thought-provoking input from the delegates. The key conclusion was that despite the long-standing existence of diversity programmes, unconscious bias remains prevalent and adversely affects the recruitment and development of people, possibly in every organisation.
I believe every one of us would want to build employer organisations where objectivity and diversity are cultural norms. Organisations where rational thought prevails to ensure fair and correct decisions in hiring and promotion.
The continued prevalence of unconscious bias therefore points to a need for leaders to grasp this nettle and reset their organisational culture, through more focused practical intervention. Perhaps more training would be a good start? Why not call me to discuss some options?
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