Unconscious bias or implicit bias can affect the decisions we make in the workplace. This is a topic organisations have accepted as important, particularly as 36% of UK adults report experiencing workplace discrimination. Biases against many things exist, including discrimination against disability, gender, age, sexual identity, religion (or beliefs) and ethnicity. To counter discrimination, many organisations have an equality (or equity), diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategy in place. But there is no quick fix.

The efficacy of bias training may be difficult to quantify, and organisations are perhaps guilty of ticking boxes without attempting to measure outcomes. Unconscious bias training programmes have been called into question over the last few years, which may have led to employees feeling obligated to attend training against their will. This BBC article says: ‘Employees may sleepwalk their way through a training session that seems like just an item on a checklist to boost a company’s image.’

Negativity around what unconscious bias is, how it’s seen as being culturally imposed by employers, and the suspicion around motives for why firms commit to it, contribute to its reputation. Yet, this detracts from the benefits of being mindful about unconscious bias and the positive outcomes training could have on individual and organisational growth.

What is unconscious bias, and how does it work?

Our unconscious mind is like a machine that operates in the background, helping us make decisions based on our knowledge of the world thus far. It does that by drawing on our cultural environment, our background and our personal experiences. Our unconscious mind can also be coloured by social, political and economic pressures. For example, a University of Sussex study of teachers revealed that grading of students from a lower socioeconomic background was 4.4 percentage points lower than other students. It suggested unconscious bias in marking.

Our unconscious mind isn’t always accurate when reaching conclusions. This is because it relies on ‘mental shortcuts’ based on instinct, judgement and bias rather than analysis. A group of women, for example, might favour women over men, and vice versa. Instinct and bias may also come into play should there be a more favourable scenario, such as a power group. For example, someone may join a group that mainly consists of men because they think it may help them become more powerful.

The unconscious aspect of the example above is that the person who joins the men may have come to this conclusion without thinking about it. Their unconscious bias made the decision for them based on instinct.

The effects of unconscious bias can be felt in the workplace. Since our biases guide us to find answers and make decisions based on what we expect to be true, we may miss out on what’s actually true. The subtle assumptions we make about people could have lasting effects on recruitment decisions, as well as people. 55% of ‘older workers’ who responded to a Workingwise survey said they had encountered ageism in the recruitment process, while 44% had altered their CV to disguise their age due to perceived ageism. However, a recent report by the OECD found that age-diverse workforces could raise GDP per capita by almost 19% in the next three decades.

How do we deal with unconscious bias?

We often notice unconscious bias in others before we notice it in ourselves. When we notice it in ourselves, we can begin to make more informed, rational decisions based on analysis rather than instinct. This is why unconscious bias training is crucial in understanding what makes us tick, and what can make organisations tick better.

Notice (or recognise) it

If you practise meditation, you may be aware of the skill of noticing. It’s related to mindfulness, and of slowing our thoughts (not stopping them entirely) to notice what’s going on in and around us. For instance, close your eyes for a moment and listen to the sounds you never really notice while you’re reading articles like this one.

One of the first steps in countering unconscious bias and its effects is to recognise that it’s occurring. You could say it’s about noticing that it happens, and that it exists within you and within your organisation. This is commonly labelled as emotional intelligence. Being mindful about our individual and collective biases is a fundamental part of unconscious bias training. However, we may only notice our bias when we slow down and take time to reflect on the decisions we make – just like closing our eyes and listening to the sounds around us. (If you’re interested in learning more, read ‘We’re All Biased. Here’s How Meditation May Help’.)

Once we notice or recognise our biases, we can create opportunities to reconsider the reasons we came to for each decision. For instance, did we use stereotypes to help us arrive at a specific conclusion? This is where unconscious bias training moves to the next phase, which is acting to positively influence behaviours.

Take action through self-analysis

The action stage of unconscious bias training is when we commit to striving to understand why we arrive at specific conclusions. It involves self-analysis in confronting why we make certain decisions, and why organisational outcomes often look the same. This self-reflection is something we can then measure over time, as long as we do it regularly.

Monitor and measure outcomes

By monitoring outcomes at various stages, such as recruitment or promotion opportunities, we can see if unconscious bias training is having the desired effect. Business leaders can help to promote the efficacy of unconscious bias initiatives by frequently questioning recruitment and promotion decisions, for instance. Their leadership is crucial in maintaining emphasis on workplace diversity and inclusion and in helping create a culture of mindfulness.

As part of a good training programme, an organisation may choose to keep written records of why decisions were made. This sounds impractical, but by focusing on people-oriented scenarios such as hiring, firing and promotions, written records can help business leaders notice patterns that reveal themselves over time.

Kick-start genuine organisational change

Unconscious bias training doesn’t have to be a tick box imposed on employees against their will. It can represent a transformational moment in how an organisation can begin to make better decisions based on analysis, not learned instincts.

Recognising our organisational and individual biases represents the first step in making this change. Continuing the conversation is more important in understanding where our biases come from and making better decisions from that point on.

While acknowledging biases can be uncomfortable, learning from them is a year-round practice. Business leaders may find that a more sustained and desirable outcome will come from empowering employees to consistently and frequently discuss what they learn. Not just during Black History Month, but every month moving forward, to create a more inclusive workplace.