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Can we ever deal with unconscious bias?

22nd October 2019

More tribunal cases are turning on the role of unconscious bias. The King’s College NHS Foundation Trust last year paid out £1 million to an Afro-Caribbean member of staff who’d been “assumed” to be the aggressor in an incident with a visitor to the site. The value of the investigation had been undermined by unconscious bias.

The concept of unconscious bias goes a long way to explaining why society continues to be so unequal – in terms of gender, race and class – despite the introduction of legislation, policies, values and campaigns around equality.

So what can employers do? Advice tends to emphasise awareness – don’t underestimate the risk of unconscious bias in recruitment and selection, how managers treat their reports – and to encourage training in the issues.

There’s also a test. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) was developed by social psychologists at the University of Washington and Yale which is used by employers to encourage greater self-awareness. This was the tool used in research that found that unconscious bias affected 90-95% of people.

Human beings are partial and prejudiced by all of our individual experiences. No amount of diversity training is going to reverse a lifetime of experience. None of us, no matter how fair-minded, can be forced into a state of objectivity.

Delving into the unconscious, attempting to uncover, decode our inmost thoughts is at best impractical. What matters is how we respond to situations in the workplace, how we exercise our judgment. Should HR, then, just be setting out policies warning of the dangers of unconscious bias, get tougher on managers and recruiters?

It’s a complicated and subtle set of issues, all of them rooted in the need for honesty and trust. We need to be able to believe in a principle of openness. Are we willing to talk openly about concerns around bias, and deal with the concerns in a grown-up way?

Having those mature, self-aware conversations takes a good level of skills – what we call Conversational Intelligence. That means equipping employees with the ability to have good conversations, handle disagreements, conflict, sensitivities and differences of perspective in mature and constructive ways. The practical way of addressing unconscious bias is not to create a greater sense of nervousness and a need for doubt and repression, but a more positive spirit of openness and understanding. We have to keep talking.

Arran Heal, Managing Director, CMP