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Tackling Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Tackling Unconscious Bias in the Workplace


Julia Sinclair-Jones

September 11, 2019


Like it or not, we’re all guilty of some degree of unconscious bias, both in our personal lives and in the workplace. Unconscious bias can come in many forms: racial, gender-specific, based on sexual preferences, the way someone dresses, personality, living situation… the list goes on.

In the workplace, unconscious bias often starts before the hiring process begins. We’ve all heard tales about applicants with non-anglicised names creating a nom de plume just so that they can get their resume read.

Today, we talk about what unconscious biases are exactly, what makes them tricky to deal with personally, and how to acknowledge and change these unconscious biases before undertaking decision-making in the workplace.

What is unconscious bias and why does it matter?

According to the University of California, San Francisco, “Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organise social worlds by categorising.”

The difficulty in unconscious bias lies in the fact that many of us are unaware of it. It particularly matters in the workplace because by overcoming unconscious bias, we can promote a diverse and inclusive working environment – and that’s critical to innovation and growth.

We have a whole list of Bulletproof Arguments for Diversity in the Workplace, but here are some quick facts that speak to why diversity is important.

Diversity increases profitability

McKinsey has some interesting survey results from 2017:

  • Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above average profitability
  • There was a 27% likelihood of outperforming fourth-quartile gender-diversity peers on longer-term value creation
  • For ethnic and cultural diversity, there was a finding of a 33% likelihood of outperformance on EBIT margin for exec teams

Diversity drives innovation

We asked Bingshuang Han, Software Engineer at Objective, about how she knows diversity is important for innovation.

“We as individuals have different tastes, ideas, expectations, preferences,” says Han. “A study (from BCG) in 2018 found that instead of focusing on a specific area of diversity, focusing on creating teams that have multiple areas of diversity has more real value for the company. The study found that companies with diverse management teams have 19% higher revenue due to innovation!

Therefore, diversity can bring increases in productivity and creativity advantages for innovation.”

Diversity means happier clients

As Heather Geary, Oceania Innovation Culture and Enablement Lead at EY puts it: “Clients want our teams to reflect their diversity or that of their customers and they let us know when we are not delivering on that.”

Diversity isn’t just necessary for within-company success, it also reflects the desires of clients that organisations are working with. Who are the clients you work with and what is their diversity mix? How can you accurately represent that without a diverse team yourself?

Combating bias from the top

It is up to company leaders to ensure bias is stamped out and diversity is a priority in any organisation.

Aaliah Eggins-Bryson, General Manager of Product Experience and Operations at Telstra speaks to her experiences putting aside her own personal biases to achieve results.

“I find this most difficult is when I am really passionate about something the team and I are working on – which is both an advantage but it can also hinder progress. It’s really hard to identify that your own personal opinions and emotions are a constant influence on everything we do.”

“When I first started leading teams, I used to hire people who were all very similar to me (but) through feedback and my own self-reflection, I recognised that there were capability gaps in my team because like with a football team, everyone needs to play their position for the team to be successful and win.”

Eggins-Bryson’s quick succession up the career ladder at Telstra with no less than three promotions in four years is no accident. It’s due to her ability to accurately self-reflect and adjust personal behaviours and biases to get the very best results for the team – even when it is at times a real challenge.

“The very best leaders actively acknowledge that their behaviours and decisions driven by bias have such broad impact and reach,” says Eggins-Bryson.

“It’s absolutely critical to ensure that this is acknowledged through self-awareness and feedback so that conscious decisions are made. Sometimes these decisions are consistent with our own biases, but at other times, which is when it becomes difficult, the decisions and subsequent activity are in direct conflict with personal bias.”

Battling bias

Above all, diversity awareness requires real, measurable activities and action to make an impact.

Geary says, “Increased diversity dramatically increases our opportunities for innovation – diversity of people increases your chances of diversity of thought, which is at the heart of innovation. Inclusion is critical though.”

“At EY, we talk about diversity being the mix of people and inclusion being how we make that mix work – diversity requires inclusion to see these results.”

What sort of measures can you implement in the workplace to realise these effects?

Again, it starts with solid leadership.

DJ Apanui, Event Marketing/Facilities Coordinator at Objective gives leaders some solid advice.

“Try to create an inclusive environment and be aware of unconscious bias. Take a few minutes to examine and analyse your personal potential biases and assumptions. The biggest and hardest thing is to let go of preconceived notions and be open to someone surprising you and perhaps learning from them.”

Consider these actionable activities:

  • Awareness training for all staff, particularly targeted towards management and decision makers
  • Competencies-based interviewing, with less focus on resume and social profile
  • Internal employee surveys to ascertain views
  • Mandated interviewing and hiring goals across diversity targets (gender, LGBTQ, disability, racial)
  • Mandated representation of minority employees across company events such as conferences, talks, job fairs, etc.

You can even follow the example of Salesforce, who hit 100% on the US’s Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index and have in place a Chief Equality Officer. Putting in a person or team in charge of diversity can help drive change significantly more effectively than someone without these sort of KPIs in their workplace agreement.

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