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Love at First Sight?

This article starts with a confession! It is not actually about love. That was merely a hook to grab your attention. Hopefully you are not too disappointed, but this is an Employment Relations article after all. The article is very much about first sight and first impressions though.

When we talk about the first impressions somebody has made on us, we place the emphasis very much on the other person; the impression ‘they have made’. We do not often consider our role as the receiver, nor do we question our openness to receiving or any filters that we have which may have refracted the messages and impressions being transmitted by them.

Consider this: have you ever found yourself instinctively disliking somebody you do not know, upon first meeting them? Have you ever noticed yourself making such judgements after a relatively short period of exposure, without realising why you feel this way?

If we are honest with ourselves, it is likely the answer to these questions is yes.

If we catch ourselves doing this, some of us might try to analyse why, for example, we found ourselves instinctively disliking somebody or not feeling comfortable with them or confident in them. Through proper reflection, we might be able to isolate what the triggers were in our subconscious which made us feel this way. Perhaps, we realise that we have negative associations with a certain name because of previous associations with it. Perhaps, we have negative associations with certain accents or with tattoos.

What we are establishing through these deep reflections are our unconscious biases. Unconscious bias can be described as the tendency of us as humans to act in ways that are prompted by “a range of assumptions and biases that we are not aware of. This can include decisions or actions that we are not consciously aware of, as well as hidden influences on decisions and actions that we believe are rational and based on objective un-biased evidence and experience.” (The University of Edinburgh).

Unconscious bias reflects that as humans we are hard-wired to make quick decisions about people we meet. It is part of our survival toolkit passed down from generation to generation. It also reflects that as adults we do not come to each day with a clean page. We have previous experiences which have been etched onto our life pages and these act as filters through which we make judgements about others. The problem with unconscious bias is twofold. Firstly, that we tend not to be consciously aware of it and secondly, it can often lead us to obliviously make patently unfair judgements about individuals even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Why is this relevant in the workplace?

The first obvious problem is that these biases or prejudices in the brain can cause us to unlawfully discriminate against individuals. It is now readily accepted that discrimination need not be conscious. Even if the discrimination is subconscious, if it involves treating a person less favourably than another on the grounds of any one of the nine protected characteristics (as set out in the Equality Act 2010) it will likely amount to unlawful discrimination.

For example, unconscious bias could cause a recruitment decision-maker to sub consciously discount women or ethnic minorities or people with a different sexual orientation from themselves, even though any objective assessment of the evidence available to the recruiter would clearly identify those candidates are being the best fit for the job. There have been a few employment law cases in which unconscious bias has led to discriminatory decisions being taken, often ultimately leading to an unfair dismissal. What we see in these cases is that the unconscious bias has closed certain employees’ minds to the extent that they treat other employees or prospective employees unfairly.

Secondly, even if the unconscious bias is not unlawful per se, perhaps because it does not relate to one of the nine protected characteristics, it can still be destructive in so many ways. In a tight labour market, it can cause organisations to unnecessarily restrict access to talent further by discounting candidates based upon regional accents, weight, piercings, and all sorts of other biases.

Unconscious bias can be described as the tendency of us as humans to act in ways that are prompted by a range of assumptions and biases that we are not aware of.

Thirdly, if unconscious bias is allowed to continue unfettered for many years in an organisation, it is likely to create a cadre of people who, because of their similarities, are highly susceptible to “group think”, which can cause dangerous organisational blind spots in a changing world.

Additionally, unconscious bias can flow into organisational culture and force a level of conformity which undermines the ability of employees to be authentic in the work environment and can subsequently cause damage to organisational reputation and employer brand.

Despite the emphasis upon “at first sight” at the beginning of this article, it should be recognised that unconscious bias is not just something that can negatively impact recruitment decisions. It is all pervasive and can have far-reaching effects on all people-related decisions: for example, questions around who is ready for promotion, who deserves a bigger pay rise and who should be given access to training or career development. In this respect, it has the power to create a toxic work culture, where employees perceive decisions which impact their employee experience as being unfair and arbitrary.

The good news is that there are ways to tackle this issue of unconscious bias. My recommendation would be that the best place to start is by raising awareness of unconscious bias amongst all employees, but especially amongst those empowered to make people related decisions on behalf of the organisation. This can be achieved through the provision of some unconscious bias training (UBT). The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) assessment of the evidence on UBT found that:

‘UBT is effective for awareness raising when using an Implicit Association Test2 (IAT) followed by a debrief, or more advanced training designs such as interactive workshops or longer-term programmes to reflectively reduce biases.’

Reflection needs to be a key component of any UBT , both at the individual and group level. There should be deep reflection on what unconscious bias might be lurking in the heads of key people decision makers. Sharing insights and reflections can be useful as long as this is done in a safe space.

It should be noted though that the EHRC observed that UBT alone cannot solve this problem.  ‘UBT can be effective for reducing implicit bias, but there is no evidence that it can eliminate it’. As UBT alone is not enough, it is also incumbent on organisations to ensure that there are good people processes in place to counter the possible impact of UB on the wide range of decisions that are made about people across the organisation, be that recruitment, access to training or promotion or development.

Let us take the recruitment process as an example. UB can manifest itself in different ways. There can be Affinity Bias, where decision-makers are prone to select people like them; Attribution Bias, where because decision-makers sub-consciously see one group as less competent than other people, they then under value their achievements and over value their mistakes; Confirmation Bias where decision-makers search out information to support their already held beliefs, or the ‘Halos and Horns’ effect where, due to UB, a decision is made quickly about which category somebody is in and then evidence is interpreted in such a way as to reinforce the already-held view.

To counter the multitude of potential biases, there needs to be comprehensive Human Resources approaches put in place. This could include, for example, being clear what the objective criteria for selection is, training all recruitment managers, having multiple and diverse inputs into a recruitment decision, eliminating the need to supply names on applications, conducting structured interviews or assessment centres, and monitoring the impact of selection decisions on the diversity of the selection pool at each stage of the selection process and having the courage to stop the process if there appears to be a discriminatory adverse impact on certain groups.

Unconscious bias may be a reality, but it is not an inevitability that unconscious bias must lead to unfair or unlawful treatment of people. Organisations have the means and the responsibility, both moral and legal, to ensure that this is not the case.

Should you need any assistance with discrimination related issues or unconscious bias training, please contact our Employment Law team. 

About this article

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About this article

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