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Do you have unconscious bias?

BY Donald MacKinnon
Employment Law & HR
BG Purple

Do you have an unconscious bias?

In the light of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia the topic of race relations has reared its ugly head again and is once more in the forefront of our national and international consciousness. Much of the discussion following the violent protests was whether US President Donald Trump was attempting to create moral equivalency between the Neo Nazis and the counter protesters opposing them.  Many agree that he was attempting to do so and that this is unacceptable particularly when it comes from the leader of the free world. There have been suspicions about the President’s racial politics for a while and his opponents and political commentators now believe them to be confirmed.   However, many of Trump’s supporters agreed with his statements. Almost all of his supporters deny being racist themselves but the question has been asked, “If you support the racist, are you racist yourself?” This question spreads beyond the republican grass roots to us all; are we as objective as we think we are?

In everyday life people often make snap judgments and decisions about people based on what they see or the environment in which they were brought up.  This can translate into the workplace where people believe in their own mind that they are liberal and open minded and publicly promote diversity and equality but unconsciously have a bias. This is certainly not exclusive to race and can range from gender, age and socio-economic background among others. This is also known as affinity bias where people are naturally drawn to those who are similar to themselves. There are many ways in which bias can become apparent even in small ways, for example people believing that someone who dresses conservatively is more likely to conform or someone with tattoos is less likely to follow rules.

The Equality Act 2010 made it illegal to discriminate against a potential employee who has certain protected characteristics and candidates can bring a claim if they believe that they have been discriminated against during the recruitment process.

There are a number of actions that employers can take to maintain fairness and avoid unconscious bias. First, make sure that those making the decisions are aware of any potential biases and encourage focus on the skill set rather than other observable characteristics that may cloud their judgement. This can be expanded to cover the entire organisation as unconscious bias can manifest itself in a number of ways that can become part of organisational culture without management being aware.

Second, having a clear policy, either in the employee handbook or elsewhere that is easily accessible will focus on the positive behaviour and support the organisation if there is a claim, as it will be more able to demonstrate that it has attempted to promote a good culture towards equality and equal opportunities.

Taking time to rationally think out and justify your decisions will allow you to consider your options more clearly and help prevent first impressions and snap judgements based on stereotypes and prejudices being the root of decision making. Also, if this is all written down and recorded and can be justified at a later date you will not only be able to identify unconscious bias but also more sinister intentional discrimination. 

You may choose to monitor racial, ethnic or religious origin within your organisation in order to ensure that you are meeting your obligations with regard to equal opportunities legislation. This can be tracked over time so you can identify where you may be falling short or failing to meet your own targets for equality or diversity.

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