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A fair shake: how to eliminate unconscious bias in your workplace

Tuesday, February 2, 2016 - 16:13

by AIM Facilitator Peter Cullen

Would you actually know what I was talking about if I came up to you and said “You are guilty of unconscious bias”? Many of us would have a quizzical look on our face, feel a little confused and wonder if we had heard correctly.

Unconscious bias is the manifestation of prejudice – either for or against – one thing, person or group compared to another. It’s an accumulation of all our experiences and observations from birth until now, and enables us to very quickly evaluate people, situations and events and to make a decision at an unconscious level on whether or not we are safe.

Unconscious bias can happen anytime, anywhere to anyone. It may or may not be obvious in their behaviour. It may be a bias regarding someone’s age, gender, religion, race, whether they identify as LGBTI, or have a disability. It could be a generalisation or assumption based on a stereotype or on what’s been reported in the media, which leads people to regard comments and innuendo as if they were fact.

Eliminating unconscious bias from the workplace requires awareness programs and diversity training

What does bias look like?

These real-life workplace examples typically occur because of someone’s unconscious bias towards others:

  • You may get on really well with a person in your team so you tend to give them the preferred projects or pop out regularly for coffee together.
  • You may see assertive women as being ‘aggressive’ but see assertive men as fitting the stereotype of being strong and ‘knowing what they want’ in making things happen.
  • A recently married woman may miss out on a promotion because it’s thought she may fall pregnant soon.

But back to the original question: Let’s not look at finding unconscious bias as ‘bad news’. This is an opportunity to educate individuals as well as the wider employee base on government legislation and acceptable workplace behaviour, and to improve the organisational culture overall.

Hopefully, each person recognised as displaying an unacceptable unconscious bias – especially one that contravenes government legislation – is made aware of their behaviour and their responsibilities. This process should be conducted in an open, transparent way that focuses on the evidence and facts.

They should be offered support to help make any necessary improvements in their behaviour. Training for the broader employee base may focus on creating respect for diversity, and upgrading people’s knowledge of the various aspects of government legislation. Including topics such as self-awareness, the art of personal reflection and communication style – hopefully in an interactive and enjoyable way – could also be useful.

Most importantly, the training will need to be implemented, supported and evaluated to ensure it becomes common within the workplace. Finally, take a moment to think how your own unconscious bias may have affected others.

AIM's Workplace Diversity short course provides an honest exploration of the opportunities and challenges inherent to Australia's diverse workplace populations. Building towards the development of meaningful diversity policy, this program will also address the issue of bias and the very real challenges that need to be overcome when creating a truly inclusive workplace.

Peter Cullen is an AIM facilitator who facilitates AIM’s Manage People Effectively course. This is a three-day program that engages in self-reflection activities where people develop their capabilities as managers and leaders. Peter has been facilitating programmes, workshops, forums and meetings with people ranging from front line staff through to senior executives for many years. He demonstrates the knowledge and expertise gained from his 31 year career in international aviation which covered customer service, business development and 10 years in senior management.