Unconscious Bias Training – why do we need it?

Unconscious bias is common, but can be hard to spot.

I was recently told by a client that he was informed by his boss that he shouldn’t bother applying for an internal promotion because – and here is the boss (and prospective interviewer) speaking “You remind me of me when I was your age and I can tell you that job isn’t for you – you won’t do well in the interview”     There is so much wrong with this statement I hardly know where to start.  This is conscious and unconscious bias all rolled up into one big mess – and potential lawsuit.

We deliver Unconscious Bias workshops for organisations.  During the workshop we we outline what it is, how it affects people and what can be done to reduce its impact.  Anyone in the organisation who is contributing to or making decisions on recruitment and selection, career progression and work allocation or performance reviews should ensure that they are aware of and have considered the effect of their unconscious biases on their decision making processes.

Unconscious Bias training should make it possible for employees to discuss and address bias without making people feel defensive, inferior or judged by their colleagues.

Put simply if we don’t believe we have a bias how can we possibly counteract it?  And if biases go unchecked, they can have multiple detrimental effects for groups against which negative biases exist.  There is a mountain of academic research supporting the theory that unconscious bias is alive and well and exists in just about every industry and country you can mention.

So what is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious Bias is a positive or negative unconscious belief about a particular category of people.  Given how our brain processes information we make quick, automatic (and sometimes inaccurate) assessments of people and situations.  How we make these decision is influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences throughout our WHOLE LIFE.
If the decision is whether to buy a small or large ice cream on a sunny day the impact of your decision isn’t really going to affect anyone too severely.  However when the decision you are making is who to hire, or who to promote or who in your team to give opportunity to lead the new project then it’s crucial that you make sure you are checking your unconscious biases as part of that decision making process.

At the start of the workshop we ask participants for a response (True or False) to this statement.

Individuals are fundamentally biased to favour people who  are similar to themselves and biased against those that are different to themselves.

Over 95% of respondents will respond that this statement is True.  In psychology-speak we categorise people into our “In-groups” and Out-groups”.  The problem with this is that we can’t depend on our brain to always deliver to us the type of information that best reflects reality.  Our quick initial gut feel reactions can be affected by biases we don’t even know are there and in milliseconds we judge if someone is like us and belongs to our “in” group – or not.

Types of Bias

We are biased towards people that we can relate to or with whom we have something in common – affinity bias.  We allow first impressions to create halo or horns effects in interview candidates that can be difficult to shift as the interview progresses.  There is a substantial amount of research done to indicate that we ascribe higher level of competency and ability to people who are have above average looks and are above average height – where’s the logic in that?!!  We are slow to question other interviewers  opinions if they are in a majority so will just go along with them even if we don’t share their view – conformity bias
The much quoted Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) attempts to measure the level of your implicit or unconscious bias.  Over 10 million  people have completed it since it was introduced by Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz (1)  in 1998.  In recent years there has been much debate played out in the pages of academic journals questioning the validity of the IAT as a measure of implicit bias.  But however we attempt to measure it few will disagree with the fact that it exists.

The Role of Training

Effective  training will help participants to recognise their own biases and identify the steps they can take to counteract, interrupt and reduce unconscious bias to improve decision making in the areas of recruitment, policy and process development and people management.  Developing an understanding of how to recognise and manage our unconscious biases is essential for creating fair, inclusive and discrimination-free workplaces.

Hilt provides bespoke unconscious bias training to organisations.  Contact us to discuss your requirements.

  1. Greenwald, Anthony G., Debbie E. McGhee, and Jordan L. K. Schwartz. 1998. Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The Implicit Association Test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74.6: 1464–1480.

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