Talent and Regulation: What is unconscious bias in the workplace?

How does unconscious bias affect the way we interact with employees and colleagues?

Talent and Regulation: What is unconscious bias in the workplace?

Donna Kelly, Senior Vice President and Business Unit Leader for UK South & Midlands at CGI, Kate Rowlinson, CEO of MediaCom UK, Rajeeb Dey MBE, Founder and CEO of Learnerbly, Jenny Knight, Founder and CEO of Nutcracker Agency and Simon Crowther, CEO of FPS Group, took to the stage for the second day of Elite Business on 12 March in the Talent and Regulation panel, speaking about the importance of workplace diversity and inclusivity – and why we should learn how to recognise our own unconscious bias.

What does inclusion mean? And what does it matter in the workplace? Kate explained: “Diversity and inclusion is when everybody in our organisation irrespective of where they come from, their race, their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social background, or age can bring their full selves to work every day and not have to worry about discriminatory behaviour or micro aggressions… It also means that we have a diverse range of perspectives across our business, at all levels in the business and that those perspectives can be heard importantly. And I think this means that we have a happier organisation and a more engaged workforce and doing better work for our clients.”

It’s important to recognise any unconscious bias we might have. Unconscious bias affects everyone. It happens when our brain automatically makes judgments and assessments of people or situations. These are thoughts or feelings we are not directly aware of, which we have unconsciously created based on our background and experiences. Jenny explained why it’s essential that we are in tune with our own unconscious bias, whether we like to admit we have one or not. She said: “I agree, the point that Kate said about bringing your whole self to work is something I talk about a lot. Being yourself is okay and it’s more than okay, it’s enough. It’s how you should be. I think that sense of not having to pretend to be something else, or if there is a stereotype of what it means to come to work, is really important. And I also think it’s being aware of different backgrounds, different orientations, or however you feel, and actually making sure that you’re responding in the right way to that. Because I’ve been thinking a lot about unconscious bias and my own unconscious bias. We all have this. And actually, being aware of that and truly acting in unbiased ways is actually vital for that inclusivity.”

With a rise in remote working, businesses are now employing skilled workers in home-based roles without a need to come into the office. Many organisations have now employed workers in different locations across the country – and some even across borders. Simon stressed how important it is that business leaders and employees recognise their unconscious bias and keep themselves educated in that aspect, creating an inclusive space for their fellow colleagues. He said: “When you look at various things it might not just be gender it might be the location of employees. And I think that’s one thing we’ve seen come out of Covid as almost a benefit. People have had to make themselves more aware.”

“Because they’re not just in their comfort zone of their office and their colleagues,” Simon added. “They might all of a sudden be thrown into an environment where they’re speaking to people on other sides of the world and actually having to interact with different cultures. So, it goes so much further than just thinking of male or female, and different genders and how people identify themselves. And it’s having that self-awareness and recognising what we feel is biased and how that relates and being able to keep yourself educated on the different aspects. Because we can’t all know everything, and we need to accept that we don’t and forever learning.”

What are the barriers to an inclusive workplace? There are many reasons why employees may not feel included in an organisation. But Donna stressed the importance of pushing through the barriers – and it starts within yourself. Donna explained: “I think the barriers are to observe it and recognise it. I don’t think the glass ceiling is there for just women, it can be for any BAME community. Basically anything, and I think the biggest barrier we have is not always the glass ceiling. We call it the sticky floor. The biggest barrier you have is actually yourself. It’s about having your own confidence that you can do it. Push yourself, look at the career gaps, look at the challenges ahead of you, and see what you need to do.”

Raj spoke about various strategies implemented at his organisation to remove unconscious bias, and create a more inclusive workspace. He said: “I think you need to be very mindful in whatever you do. When it comes to application processes, we do blind CV screenings, so we don’t see people’s names, because we’re conscious that might influence how we do things. Even when it comes to learning and development, it’s learning to recognise that just by telling someone that they can learn, someone will have the confidence to go ahead and do that and ask for a bigger investment. However, some might feel a resource is not for them. It’s about democratising that and letting people know what’s available to them is very important.”

Latifa Yedroudj
Latifa Yedroudj

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