Advice line: beware the unconscious bias

Beware of the impact of unconscious bias, warns Jess Belmonte.

Why are black and minority ethnic (BME) staff twice as likely as white staff to be disciplined at work? Why are nine chief executive officers in 10 above average height? Although the answers to these questions are complex they contain an element of unconscious bias.
Unconscious bias refers to the prejudices we all have which are not in our conscious control. These biases occur automatically, triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations based on our background, environment and ‘archived’ life experiences. A great deal of the unconscious decisions we make are essential to get through the day. If we had to think consciously about every single action we’d barely make it out of bed in the morning!
However, unconscious bias against a particular group, for example when ethnicity, gender or social class are involved, can lead to bad decisions in the workplace and can impact negatively on recruitment, performance and patient care.
Recent figures show that white applicants are more than three times more likely to be shortlisted for an NHS job than BME candidates. A pattern of recruitment of similar ‘people like us’ can lead to limited diversity of thought, decisions being made without alternative points of view and can impact negatively on patient care.
So what can we do to limit the impact of unconscious bias?
  • An awareness of the presence of unconscious bias in itself can trigger you to check important decisions to ensure they were not influenced by assumptions.
  • Ensure your colleagues and team are aware of the presence and impact of unconscious bias. Consider undertaking training or complete an online assessment and have an open discussion.
  • Acknowledge your own prejudices even if it is uncomfortable and seek out situations and people to challenge them.
  • Challenge others and be prepared to be challenged yourself

Jess Belmonte is a CSP national officer, equality and research.
Jess Belmonte CSP national officer, equality and research

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