Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

12 February 2017

In the Society for Human Resource Management Blog, Andrea Choate explores the links between neuroscience, unconscious bias and the workplace. Choate identifies the neurological processes that underlie the reason which makes unconscious bias a universal trait of the human condition.

Processes in various areas of the brain – including the amygdala, hippocampus and frontal-cortex – contribute to unconscious bias, with neurological patterns susceptible to becoming hardwired and self-reinforcing.

Choate explains that the universality of unconscious bias leads to consequences “at all levels” of the workplace and may “perpetuate old, negative norms and keep unhealthy behavior firmly rooted at the expense of the good of the organization and its employees”.

The piece explains there are over 150 ‘types’ of unconscious bias than can affect an organisation and defines some of the more common including “Out-Group Bias” (perceiving those who are different in a more negative way) and “Confirmation Bias” (having the tendency to seek information that confirms pre-existing beliefs or assumptions, or conversely to discount information that is incongruent with one’s assumptions).

Whilst Choate is clear that we all possess unconscious bias she also provides strategies on how we might mitigate against its risks. The first step is to educate people of its effects and increase organisational awareness that unconscious bias exists and is omnipresent.

As an organisation who works with vulnerable and frequently stigmatised populations SAL Consulting firmly believes that the acknowledgement of unconscious bias is an ethical imperative. It is only then the that organisations and their employees can make a genuine commitment to uncover and challenge the pervasive presence of unconscious bias in our work.

Key Quotes:

“Unconscious bias is innate to all human beings. People are hardwired to prefer those who look, sound, and share similar interests. Neurologically, these preferences are unconscious and bypass rational thinking.”

“Each day the brain processes billions of stimuli. This process takes place in the amygdala, the region of the brain associated with threat and fear. Information processed in the amygdala is used to survive, make assumptions, and feel emotions that cause one to be attracted to certain people (those in the in-group) but not to others (those in the out-group). Due to the quickness and efficiency of this part of the brain, bias often results for which the person is unaware.”

“In addition to individual bias, unconscious bias also occurs at the organizational level. Collective unconscious patterns of behavior have great and often long-lasting influence over organizational decisions and cultural thinking and interaction. These types of patterns perpetuate old, negative norms and keep unhealthy behavior firmly rooted at the expense of the good of the organization and its employees.”

“The first step toward mitigating unconscious bias in the workplace is to increase awareness that the brain is hardwired toward this tendency. Neuroscientist David Rock advises organizations to identify the various types of bias likely to be present in their workplace and then make a collective effort to overcome the negative impact of those biases.”

“By gaining an understanding of how the human brain works, one can become more aware of the unconscious processes taking place in the brain when formulating opinions and making decisions. While bias exists in everyone, through concerted effort, the impact of unconscious bias can be diminished by increasing awareness and facilitating changes to thinking, behavior, and organizational practices.”

Link to Full Article Published 3/12/16:


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