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Equality and Diversity - Mitigating the Risk of Unconscious Bias

on Friday, 31 July 2015.

What is it and should it be on my agenda?

Progress towards creating a more diverse workforce at all levels is an objective that most employers (public and private sector) include in their corporate objectives. Whilst there has undoubtedly been some progress in some areas, the pace of change is slow.

Relatively recently, there has been an increasing focus on the concept of unconscious bias and we have seen an increasing number of requests to assist clients with staff development in this area, as well as help in auditing policies and processes to identify situations where unconscious bias may impact.

Unconscious bias is essentially a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brains making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

Unconscious bias can occur in many situations and in relation to many prejudices. These include physical characteristics/appearances, social contexts such as socio-economic group, stereotyping and in group favouritism. In many circumstances these prejudices may amount to discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 (for example not promoting a woman because of stereotypical assumptions about having children) but unconscious bias is much wider and includes prejudices which may not satisfy that definition. It is therefore a business risk which needs to be identified and mitigated in the same way as other risks.

Research by various eminent academics demonstrates that unconscious bias is a habit that can be changed. Awareness raising and staff development through the use of inter-active workshops are essential aspects together with the provision of a toolkit of strategies to equip relevant staff to deal with these biases.

Changing behaviour in this way takes time, effort and a willingness on the part of decision makers to be open to change. To be really effective, it needs to be led by the Board and senior management teams who should be the first group to undertake awareness raising.

Next Steps

  • Review all internal processes and identify situations where unconscious bias may impact. Commonly, these will include recruitment practices, promotion processes and PDRs/appraisals.
  • Implement/refresh staff development programmes prioritising development of senior management and those involved in recruitment and promotion.
  • Risk assess new policies/processes to limit the impact of unconscious bias.

For more information, please call Jane Byford in our Employment Law team on 0121 227 3712.