Luke Smith investigates the role leaders play in tackling unconscious bias in the workplace
Unconscious bias has been a major issue in business for decades. However, businesses have only recently started to understand the scale and impact that stereotypes and unchallenged beliefs can have on employees and customers.
As a business leader, you can take the initiative and actively combat unconscious bias in your workplace. This may involve a few awkward conversations and require extra funding for training, but the investment into exposing and reducing unconscious bias is always worth it.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias is a term that has gained traction in the last decade. As companies across the world committed to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), many folks came to realise that some harmful thoughts and habits were actually “unconscious” rather than intentional.
Professor Uta Frith describes how unconscious bias works in a field like academia. Frith describes how, “If the typical distinguished academic is a white male,” we may unconsciously “favour white males also when it comes to promotion, grants, and prizes.”
Nothing will harm brand as quickly as customer interactions that expose unconscious bias
Frith explains that unconscious biases “clashed with deeply held values of a fair and just society” and that these kinds of biases may exist at every level of business, education, and politics. Unfortunately, unconscious bias isn’t necessarily something we can change easily — it is, after all, unconscious.
Our best bet, according to Frith, is to use “conscious thought processes to control unconscious bias.” This approach forces us all to slow down, consider our actions, and make changes based on conscious thoughts and behaviours. This may sound difficult at first, but with a little training and forethought, everyone in your business can learn to avoid unconscious bias.
Internal unconscious bias
Progressive employers may be surprised to find unconscious bias in their place of work, but there is plenty of research to suggest that many workplaces are still rife with unconscious bias that produces a hostile professional environment.
For example, many LGBTQIA+ people strategically modify their behaviour while at work to hide elements of their personality that might not go down well with their peers. 35% of survey takers admit that they have hidden the fact they identify as LGBT at work due to fear of repercussions.
Clearly, unconscious bias exists in the workplace and has a detrimental impact on employees and customers alike. However, learning to identify and resolve unconscious bias takes time, effort, and resources. Leaders can combat unconscious bias by advocating for policy changes and training that advance DEI outcomes for staff and customers alike.
Harmful unconscious bias is unacceptable at any level of your business, and nothing will harm brand as quickly as customer interactions that expose unconscious bias in in the workplace.
Unconscious bias is surprisingly common in customer service. You can identify bias in customer service by listening to the conversations service representatives are having with customers. In particular, pay attention to any themes like:
● Service representatives who make assumptions about class or education based on a customer’s accent
● Representatives who prioritise some customers and treat them with extra care
● Customer service representatives who doubt the customer’s ability to pay due to identifying information they have about the customer.
It’s important to recognise those customer service representatives who use unconscious bias to make decisions aren’t necessarily “bad” people. They simply haven’t had the conversations and training necessary to combat their own unconscious bias. Fortunately business leaders are in a great position to begin new initiatives that challenge bias in their company.
Once bias has been identified in the organisation, it’s time to take action and make some changes to the way you operate. Failing to take meaningful action will frustrate employees and undermine overall commitment to DEI initiatives.
Start by openly sharing findings and goals with the team. Making operational changes without the input of employees can be risky, an leaders may end up doing more harm than good without their insights to guide them.
When ready, start making conscious changes to the way you treat previously marginalised or maligned groups. For example, make your LGBTQIA+ employees feel valued by revising your values and updating policies like family care to encompass LGBTQIA+ individuals. This will give folks who face discrimination in the form of “banter” a clear route to follow when they want to raise complaints and ensures that everyone feels supported by the business.
Take the lead in retraining customer support professionals to value customers while avoiding biases. Encourage employees to engage with customers on a deeper level through training roleplay and verbal discussions. These discussions should explain why unconscious bias conflicts with your business’ values and gives employees alternative forms of evaluation and customer engagement.
Unconscious bias exists at every level of society. Business leaders need to counter harmful stereotypes and combat unconscious bias at work. Start by identifying internal biases within the business. Next, touch base with your people and make sure you don’t accidentally cause more harm than good. Employees may already have some great ideas and insights ready to help reduce bias and create a fairer, more inclusive workplace.
Luke Smith is a freelance writer