In recent times, dealing with unconscious bias has entered the agenda of many organisations.  Employers with a commitment to diversity and inclusion recognise it as a significant barrier to achieving the business and social benefits of a diverse workforce.

Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about people or groups of people. These hidden biases are held by everyone and exist outside our conscious beliefs about various social and identity groups. It is considered a causal factor in regard to inequity. (APSC, 2019)

Three Phases in Reducing Discrimination

Tackling the downsides of unconscious bias has the potential to improve innovation and business decision making.  In an HR context, unconscious bias is often viewed as the third phase of reducing discrimination.

The first phase involved governments establishing anti-discrimination and human rights legislation that, among other things, identified individual attributes and categories of people that had traditionally been excluded from full participation in society.

The second phase is generally viewed as employers and peak bodies establishing strategies for diversity and to create genuine equal opportunity.

Ongoing methods include targeted development of groups with attributes not traditionally associated with their industry or profession, through to setting quotas. The strategies often target attributes covered by the legislation (e.g. gender, race, disability) but can include other attributes, such as thinking styles and non-traditional industry experience.

Barriers to Achieving Diversity

Despite positive intent, many organisations have either failed to achieve the targets in their strategy, or to sustain change. The study of unconscious bias has provided a rich field of research that resonated for many leaders frustrated by the lack of progress in their diversity strategies.

Understanding that many of the prejudices are so deeply embedded in our thinking patterns and beliefs helped to explain their strong influence over people’s action and decision making.

Toner (2016) describes unconscious bias as:

‘…a bias which happens automatically, is not under our control and is triggered by our unconscious (hidden) mind making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our genetic make-up, background, past and present cultural environments and personal experiences.’

So, these biases begin forming very early in our lives. While some biases can form through experiences in adulthood, many are ‘second nature’ and become beliefs that we see no point in challenging; they are a ‘given’.

Psychologists and others have identified over 150 ways these biases form. Some classic ones are ‘confirmation bias’, where you look for information that supports your existing beliefs and reject data that goes against what you believe. ‘Overconfidence bias’ highlights our tendency to place too much faith in our own knowledge and opinions, even when we compare it with an expert’s opposing view.

Tackling Prejudices

Early training on unconscious bias attempted to identify and eradicate the biases. The principle was that by becoming aware of your bias it would somehow disappear. The evidence suggests that quite the opposite happened. When individuals had their unconscious biases pointed out to them, they would often start defending them, entrenching them as conscious biases. There are several reasons proposed for this: some say that people (especially managers) don’t like being ‘strong-armed’ into what to think, while others believe the ‘name and shame’ approach creates defensiveness, especially when those being criticised don’t understand what they’ve done wrong.

iHR Australia’s training in unconscious bias recognises that prejudices (both positive and negative) exist in everyone and will affect their decision making. The key to minimising the influence that biased statements or decisions have on diversity and discrimination is to create a safe environment where perceived biases can be called out and discussed. Rather than calling out a statement as ‘biased’ and dismissing it, our suggestion is to explore the evidence or rationale behind the statement. By submitting the statement or decision to scrutiny, people can begin a dialogue where various views can be assessed. Dialogue respects the points of view while questioning their veracity. We must also be aware that once we start discussing someone else’s biases, all our own biases come pouring out too. Traditional debate is insufficient for this type of nuanced conversation.

Effort vs. Benefits

One person’s biases will affect their decisions. The collective biases of a group in the workplace will define the culture of that group. The effect of persistent biases will be to reduce diversity and create exclusion.

To achieve the fairness and benefits of a diverse, inclusive culture, deliberate and conscious actions are required. While joint assessment of perceived biases can be time consuming and require considerable patience and energy, when the benefits of diversity and the risks of discrimination are at stake, it is worth the effort.


Author Profile

Sebastian Harvey is a leading facilitator and coach in all areas of people management. Sebastian has more than 15 years’ experience as an independent consultant working across a range of sectors, including health, local and state government, manufacturing, banking and utilities. Sebastian’s experience is further cemented by 18 years as an internal consultant and manager in recruitment and human resource development functions within the public and education sectors. He has worked as a coach in the context of behavioural management, career development and outplacement, and is an experienced interviewer and mediator, assisting organisations with change projects.


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