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Unconscious biases

Unconscious biases are:

  • attitudes beyond our regular perceptions of ourselves and others
  • reinforced by our environment and experiences
  • the basis for a great deal of our patterns of behaviour about diversity.

Research is proving that we are biased towards the world around us and use stereotypes all the time. Our brains are wired towards patterns and similarity, while difference is harder to accommodate.

When it comes to creating inclusive and diverse workplaces we need to look inward first.

Impacts of unconscious bias

Where there is bias (conscious or unconscious) in the workplace, we continue to recruit, promote, allocate work, and manage performance with filters on our thinking. We cannot change what we do not see or acknowledge, but we can change conscious attitudes and beliefs.

Unconscious bias in the workplace can mean:

  • talented people are left out of your workforce or not allowed equal opportunity for development and career progression
  • diverse voices aren’t heard in meetings and decisions can be impaired
  • your culture is not demonstrating inclusive workplace principles
  • employees are not contributing fully to your organisation
  • creativity and productivity of your team or organisation may be compromised.

Manage unconscious bias in your workplace

  • Organisation awareness
  • Individual
  • Attraction and selection
  • Career development and talent management
  • Work allocation and team dynamics
  • Performance management
  • Community services and relations
  • Resources

Organisation awareness

Encourage your leadership team to understand the impact unconscious bias has in the workplace and the importance of interrupting it. Get leaders to complete the Harvard Implicit Assessment Test and discuss their results. Run an information session on how unconscious bias affects us, host an expert speaker, or build the topic into your leadership programs.

Examine your workforce demographics for equity issues that appear in the statistics based on either gender, age, ability or ethnicity.

Conduct employee surveys or run employee focus groups (women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, new Australians, people with a disability, mature aged employees) to find out if they have witnessed unconscious bias and what impact it has on their employment experience.

Circulate the Your Unconscious Bias infographic (PDF, 1.75 MB).

Individual

Take the Harvard Implicit Assessment Test to assess your unconscious biases.

Practice mindfulness to reduce your stress levels and slow down your thinking processes. Being more deliberate in your decision making can reduce your propensity towards unconscious bias.

Attraction and selection

In an ideal world, all recruitment papers would have de-identified data thus eliminating some of the known unconscious biases such as age, gender, where applicants are from, which university they attended and so on. However, this is harder with a large number of applicants.

Advertise roles in a broad section of places that diversity groups look to for new jobs. 

Train your selection panel members to be aware of their unconscious biases by completing the Harvard Implicit Association Test.

Tips on overcoming bias during recruitment and selection

Career development and talent management

Create your succession plans with at least 2 ‘go-to’ people (those who can easily step up when leaders are away or unavailable). Make sure 1 is a woman or from a minority group.

Support the development of future female leaders or those from diverse backgrounds by creating a mentoring program specifically to unleash their potential.

Cover diversity leadership skills when developing leadership programs.

Work allocation and team dynamics

Helping managers understand they are more likely to assign projects to individuals who they have an unconscious affinity with can be a first step. You can encourage managers to take risks and allocate work to different people.

Set up a team meeting structure that encourages diverse voices, by including round robin updates where everyone gets an equal say, and different people can assume the role of the chair

Run an awareness program for your team that uncovers unconscious biases in the workplace, label the biases that commonly occur, and discuss how you can be more mindful about overcoming them.

Use devil’s advocate or de Bono’s six hats approach to help teams get used to identifying bias in their thinking and decision making.

Performance management

When managers have an unconscious affinity with an employee, they often spend more time with them informally, discussing their contributions, development and career plans. For those they have little affinity with, managers are more likely to query past performance and the conversations are often less friendly.

Minimising unconscious bias in performance reviews

Bias in the performance management review process (PDF, 970KB)

An impartial review

Community services and relations

Building design innovation capability in your team or organisation can help you create solutions with diverse community needs in mind. When dealing with complex and whole-of-government problems you are better off co-designing with a wide range of stakeholders, so your solution overcomes unconscious bias tendencies.

Resources

Training programs

Articles

Case studies