Understanding unconscious bias in the workplace

Agnes Yeboah
There has been an increased importance and popularity on topics like unconscious bias, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), psychological safety, quiet quitting, and other social matters. This can be attributed to several interconnected factors, such as social awareness and activism, workplace dynamics, consumer expectations, social media, technology, and globalisation, just to mention a few. Movements like “Black Lives Matter”, “Me Too”, and others have raised awareness of systemic inequalities and injustices and have further emphasised the need for addressing unconscious biases and promoting inclusive practices in all areas of society, including workplaces.
Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, refers to attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions unconsciously. These biases are involuntarily formed and often result from societal conditioning and personal experiences. While these biases can be positive or negative, they frequently perpetuate stereotypes and contribute to systemic inequality.
Survival mechanism
Unconscious bias occurs when our brains make quick judgments and assessments of people and situations quickly to process an overwhelming amount of information quickly. Evolutionarily, this was a survival mechanism, helping us quickly determine friend from foe. In modern society, this categorisation manifests as biases based on race, social class, gender, age, religion, level of education, and other social categories. These biases are further reinforced by cultural norms, media representations, and how we are socialised, making them deeply ingrained and challenging to eradicate.
In organisations, unconscious bias can have profound implications because it influences processes such as recruitment, performance evaluations, promotions, and virtually everyday workplace interactions. Often, hiring managers may unconsciously favour candidates who are like them in terms of background, interests, or experiences. This "similarity bias" can lead to a lack of diversity in the workplace. Stereotypes can affect how managers perceive and evaluate the performance of employees. For instance, women might be judged more harshly than men for the same behaviour, or younger employees might be overlooked for leadership roles due to stereotypical assumptions about their capabilities. Similarly, individuals with disability can be completely overlooked for job opportunities stemming from assumptions about their competence and ability.
Additionally, biases can influence who gets promoted and who doesn't. Employees who conform or mirror the stereotypical image of a leader in that respective context might be more likely to be promoted than equally or more qualified candidates who do not fit this image. Unconscious biases can affect day-to-day interactions between colleagues, or managers and employees, leading to microaggressions—subtle, often unintentional, discriminatory comments or behaviours that break down collaboration in the work environment. These instances can create a toxic work environment for those on the receiving end.
While unconscious biases are deeply ingrained, there are several tactics that organisations and individuals alike can implement to mitigate their impact. Firstly, educating employees about unconscious bias is crucial. Awareness training can help individuals recognise their own biases and understand how these biases impact their behaviour and decision-making processes. Second to that, it is essential that structured and standardised processes are implemented for recruitment and selection, performance evaluations, and promotions to reduce the impact of bias. For instance, using blind recruitment techniques, where identifying information is removed from applications, can help ensure that candidates are evaluated based on their skills and qualifications alone. Additionally, having diverse panels for hiring and promotion decisions can help counteract individual biases because a diverse group is more likely to challenge biased thinking and make more equitable decisions.
Fostering an inclusive workplace culture where diversity is valued and respected can help mitigate the effects of unconscious bias. This includes promoting open dialogue about bias and providing support for those who experience the negative impact of implicit bias. It is equally important to hold managers and employees accountable for biased behaviour. This can involve setting diversity and inclusion goals, monitoring progress, and taking corrective actions when necessary. Lastly, encouraging regular feedback and self-reflection can help individuals become more aware of their biases which in turn will reduce biased decision-making.
Addressing unconscious bias is an ongoing process that requires commitment and effort at both the individual and organisational levels. By recognising and actively working to mitigate these biases, organisations can create more equitable and inclusive workplaces where all employees can thrive and contribute valuably to achieving organisational goals.
* Agnes Yeboah is Capricorn Groups Head Talent Investment & DEI.
** Opinion pieces and letters by the public do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial team. The editors reserve the right to abridge original texts. All newspapers of Namibia Media Holdings adhere to the Code of Ethics for Namibian Media, a code established jointly with the Media Ombudsman.