Unlike outward displays of prejudice, unconscious bias is subtle. The perpetrator normally isn’t aware of what they’re doing and, often, the victim isn’t sure whether they’re experiencing bias or not. You might suspect that you’ve been on the receiving end of it, but not feel 100% sure.
When Yasmin* applied for a promotion at work, she was pretty confident that she’d get it.She’d just smashed all her targets. But, instead, it went to her colleague. A man who, it just so happened, had gone to the same school as her boss. Meanwhile, Marie* was thrilled she’d been invited to the big meeting with clients after months of hard work but, when she arrived, she realised she’d just been asked along to make the tea.
They both felt they had been discriminated against – Yasmin, because of her class, gender and ethnicity combined; Marie, because of her gender in a male-dominated firm – but they struggled to prove it. After all, Yasmin’s colleague had similar experience to her. And when Marie complained to HR about constantly being seen as the tea maid, she later found out someone had called her a “snowflake”. In the end, both felt they had no choice but to quit their jobs. This is the harsh reality of unconscious bias in the workplace.
What is unconscious bias?
“Unconscious bias is holding ideas or basing value decisions about groups or individuals with a shared characteristic – like their race, gender or sexuality – without knowing it,” explains Melanie Eusebe, co-founder and chair of the Black British Business Awards. “Most of us have some sort of bias. But, when a person with power doesn’t realise their biases are impacting their choices, it can become problematic.”
Bias can manifest in a number of ways – from bosses hiring in their image, to colleagues consistently mispronouncing someone’s name. It can be as simple as someone checking their emails while you’re talking to them, or not taking your questions. “The key to all these things is that we don’t do them to someone we respect, like a boss,” explains diversity and inclusion consultant Elonka Soros.
“When we think someone is important, we pay attention to our behaviour more. With an unconscious bias, we may hold a belief that the person is somehow lesser, and it constantly comes out through slights and digs. It can make people feel less valued and motivated, and their ability to share valuable perspectives is lessened. It can affect their career, but also means businesses don’t benefit from their diversity.”
Even though unconscious bias can seem hard to pin down, Soros stresses that everyone can see it. “It’s a new way of articulating what we might have called rude behaviours, and they affect everyone,” she says. “It affects the way the team works. If a boss always calls someone the wrong name, everyone hears it, and people form their own opinions as to why the boss doesn’t feel the name is important enough to get right, none of which are positive.”
One way to identify unconscious bias is to compare behaviours: is a boss always taking men’s questions in meetings, and not women’s? Are seemingly small things, like all networking opportunities revolving around alcohol, actually blocking certain people from opportunities?
“Bias can make you feel like you’re going crazy because it’s displayed through micro-behaviours,” says Eusebe. “If you sense you’re not rising in the workplace, that means several micro-incidents have happened; you won’t get that sense from one thing.”
What to do if you're facing unconscious bias
As awareness around bias has grown in recent years, most large companies have confidential whistle-blowing practices in place, such as calling a hotline or speaking to a trusted senior and asking for help.
“Workplaces will want you to follow protocol, but the reality is that we check with our friends first. You need reinforcement, someone else saying, ‘This is wrong,’” says Eusebe. Besides, reporting bias isn’t always the best option for everyone.“Companies are doing more, but you still have a decision to make: in light of your company culture, what do you want to do with the information you have? How much do you want to stay and work through it? Will they receive that in good faith or will it ultimately harm you?”
She references an example of a young Black woman who has just joined a company
and is experiencing bias. “I wouldn’t say, ‘Just report it,’” admits Eusebe. “She needs to have a plan and know people will support her. Because when women complain, unfortunately they can be penalised.”
This harsh reality is why, so often, people like Yasmin and Marie end up leaving
their jobs after experiencing repeated bias. But if people do want to report it, Eusebe advises first reaching out to friends and colleagues to ask for support, and then figuring out how to report – whether that’s going to HR, speaking to senior staff, or even asking a fellow colleague to speak out on your behalf. She also explains that a perpetrator may not be fired. The first course of action many companies take is training, which can help people become more aware of the impact of their behaviour.
How to be an ally to someone facing unconscious bias
Allies are so important in the workplace, precisely because it’s so hard for victims to speak out. “If you’re in a privileged position and not affected, be the person who speaks up,”says Soros. “We can all see these micro-behaviours and micro-aggressions, so if you see it, raise it – whether that’s there and then, or afterwards.”
Eusebe agrees, urging people to be whistle-blowers if they witness bias. “We want to create a call-out culture. That’s not about me saying, ‘I’ve experienced this as a victim,’ but my colleagues advocating for me, saying that the behaviour I went through was inappropriate. Whistle-blowing is about everyone being responsible for the culture.” Don’t confuse allyship with being a saviour, though. “It’s not as if people haven’t got a voice, it’s just that they’re not being listened to,” points out Soros. So listen and support, rather than take over.
How to handle your own unconscious bias
As much as we might not like to accept it, we’re all guilty of bias. Step one is cleaning up your own “backyard”. The most important thing you can do is figure out your own biases and be aware of them – something that Eusebe has done. As a lover of fitness, she has a bias related to mobility. “I cherish it so much that I don’t think about people who can’t do the same things, so now I take special care,” she acknowledges. “Because I know I don’t think about it, I force myself to think about it.”
The next step is about changing cultures in workplaces so that poor behaviour is no longer tolerated. Soros advises that bosses should be clear about company values – particularly things like language, such as advising against using phrases like “millennial snowflake” – and holding people to account, as well as rewarding the behaviours they want to see. If you’re in a position to, bring in unconscious-bias training. “I think it should be available for all professions,” she says. “We can’t cure unconscious bias, but with awareness we can do something about it.”
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