Unconscious Bias at Play behind Closed Doors

By Snéha Khilay, Professional Development Consultant Blue Tulip Training

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Desmond Tutu 

Organisations who have taken into account the changes in the Equalities legislation have placed a greater emphasis on policies, procedures and inclusive practices. Some of these organisations have now become complacent with the misguided belief that they do not need to take any further measures regarding diversity and inclusion.

According to United Nations, ‘Discriminatory behaviour takes many forms but all involve some form of exclusion or rejection’. Through ongoing research conducted in various parts of the world, it has become increasingly apparent that colleagues make choices which subtlety discriminate in favour of or against certain characteristics in a person or group. These choices are based at an unconscious level, known as Unconscious (Implicit) bias or hidden assumptions. Kings College London describe Unconscious Bias as ‘the biases we have which we are not in conscious control. These biases occur automatically, triggered by our brain making quick judgements and assessments of people and situations based on our background, cultural environment and our experiences.’

Biases are found in situations where individuals have the power to influence outcomes through their decision and actions. As a result of these unconscious biases, recruitment processes, promotions, allocation of work, performance reviews, and redundancies are not conducted in a fair and consistent manner.  The job/promotion/task is given to a preferred person as opposed to the right person. Creativity is not utilised.

Tackling assumptions and acknowledging attitudes is a powerful agent for change.  The bridge building process/overcoming barriers requires conscientious responsibility to be aware and a willingness to change one’s attitude and organisation’s processes. Acknowledging and addressing unconscious bias is a first step in creating business environments where organisations attract, retain and nurture the right skills irrespective of any differences, visible or not visible. 

We all hold biases and prejudices and these are manifested in our behaviours towards certain people who look, act and dress differently from us. We naturally tend to gravitate towards people with whom we feel safe or perceive that they think like us.  These thought patterns, assumptions or biases, built up over time become a perceptual scanning process, filtering out certain aspects and allowing key preferences; all based on perceptions and interpretations.

During training sessions that I have facilitated, I have often noticed that when there is a racially diverse audience, the black participants will most likely sit together on one side of the room and the white participants on the other side. Participants, after they have been made aware of the seating situation, are usually surprised about the unconscious segregation. These unconscious preferences are hard wired into our brains at a neurological level. The implicit preferences are formed by our social and cultural contexts and experiences. If challenged about these biases, most of us do feel uncomfortable that some of our behaviours are based on stereotypes and concept of differences.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point asserts that within the first seven seconds of interacting with a stranger, we will make an average of eleven judgements about the person. We will subconsciously continue to gather data to justify and maintain these judgements. Ongoing research has shown that there is bias in work-related situations amongst individuals who have the power to influence outcomes through their decisions and actions. According to the United Nations, ‘Discriminatory behaviour takes many forms but all involve some form of exclusion or rejection’.

During a recent conversation with one of my clients Sunil, he revealed he was indignant that he hadn’t been promoted.  He was convinced that, even though he felt entitled to the promotion, he did not get it because of his race.  Sunil, who is of Indian origin, lamented that the Equality legislation was in namesake only and that organisations still have to make long term, effective changes before equality is fully embedded.  Towards the end of our conversation, Sunil told me that he was inviting a few colleagues for drinks to his home the following Saturday.

He added that Peter, another team colleague, had not been invited.  In response to my query, Sunil explained that, whilst he is happy to interact with Peter at work, he would feel uncomfortable about inviting him to his home. Peter is gay.

I reflected on this conversation and recognised that some do succumb to the ‘pressure’ and expectation of being inclusive in their professional lives and indeed do interact with colleagues from different backgrounds in a respectful manner.  However, there seems to be a different impetus when managing differences in our personal lives.  What became evident from my conversation with Sunil was that not only was he concerned about how his friends and family would behave towards Peter, he was anxious about the reaction from his family; that he was socialising with someone who is gay.  Sunil explained that, given homosexuality is a taboo subject in his family, he would not want to experience his family’s anger and disapproval.

We select and sift through who we want interact and be friendly with, both inside and outside of work; our matching processes are inevitably based on similarities –  interests, values, personality etc.  It is apparent, based on conversations with friends and colleagues that in some instances, social (personal) interaction hadn’t taken place due to anxiety as to how to behave towards someone who is different and therefore unknown.  There are stories of women going through a divorce, who are not invited to events dominated by couples.  In one instance, a person who followed a vegan diet was not invited to a dinner party as the host did not know how to cater for her.

Whilst it can be argued that people are entitled to invite and engage with whoever they choose to in their personal lives, my concern is that not inviting someone only because of their difference inevitably becomes ‘discrimination behind closed doors’.  Elements within the definition of discrimination include whether there was an intention to exclude and what the impact was on the recipient.  Sunil clearly and intentionally excluded Peter from an invitation to his home, taking the view that, as Peter was unaware of the exclusion, he was not affected.  Sunil argued that he could not handle Peter’s difference in his personal life and, if Peter does not know that he was excluded, then it doesn’t matter.

Are we, behind closed doors, maintaining a form of segregation, an exclusivity of ‘let’s interact with people who look, talk, behave and think like us’?  Is this acceptable, especially as no legislation, policies or procedures govern the selection process, a process whereby people aren’t invited to an event purely because their perceived difference does not fit the host’s standards / norms of ‘acceptability’, whatever that may be.

For me, this means that even those of us who consider that we have been treated well at work may not really know what is said when we are out of the room.  Is there a subliminal message of ‘I cannot deal with your difference’ when not inviting someone to events?  And, even if the person concerned is unaware of their exclusion, this exclusion is quite possibly apparent to those who have been included.

I strongly believe that we fundamentally value differences and strive to be inclusive; at the same time scientific research has demonstrated that biases, although thought to be obsolete or extinguished remain as residual debris in most of us. Collaborative research conducted in a number of universities in UK and USA indicates a link between hidden biases and actual behaviour. Simply put, because prejudices are outside our awareness, the subtle (and negative) behaviours that follow are usually ignored or trivialised.

One of my favourite stories where unconscious bias has been dealt with effectively is in the hiring of musicians for orchestra. Historically there was an unspoken view that certain instruments such as trombone, cello, and drums were considered heavy and masculine. It was felt that women did not have the capacity or the stamina to play them as well as men and therefore were not appointed to perform in orchestras. In a move to stop conductors ‘choosing favourites’, partitions were placed between the musician and the judging committee so all decisions were based solely on what was played and heard,  thus avoiding implicit bias towards men. The number of female musicians playing in orchestras has increased as a result.

Malcolm Gladwell states: “The fact that there are now women playing for symphony orchestras is not a trivial change. It matters because it has opened up a world of possibility for a group that had been locked out of opportunity… orchestras now hire better musicians and better musicians mean better music.”

Ignorance is bliss; this however goes against the grain of inclusivity – lack of awareness is now no longer an excuse. Once you are aware of how your unconscious bias is influencing your thoughts and current decisions, you can take steps to ‘retrain’ your brain to think differently about certain traits and alter your reactions to them. A greater awareness of unconscious bias will undoubtedly lead to a more diverse and inclusive culture, made up from a wider, rich pool of talent.

About Snéha Khilay

Snéha is a multilingual, highly motivated and creative Professional Development Consultant and Trainer, working in Personal and Professional Development in International Markets. She is the founder or Blue Tulip Training, and specialises in Cultural Diversity, Personal Effectiveness, Unconscious Bias, Leadership and Management Development.  Snéha is an accomplished author, known best for her ‘no holds barred’ approach to tackling the most sensitive and pertinent issues surrounding culture and diversity in the workplace today. Her monthly newsletter, Essence of Equality, has over 2500 subscribers and she contributes regularly to the London School of Economics Diversity Blog and has published articles on cultural diversity and inclusion in various management related journals.


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