ADVICE: Combating unconscious bias in the workplace

The below is a guest post from Marcela Slepica, Director Clinical Services, AccessEAP.

We all like to feel included, both in the workplace and in other aspects of our lives. We want to feel valued and free to be ourselves, especially if we feel like we don’t fit within a majority. 

We want to feel that we belong. When we feel that we belong at work, we’re more engaged, more productive and more effective.

But unconscious biases are a major barrier to creating truly inclusive workplaces. 

Unconscious bias affects every area of our lives. Most of us would like to think that we’re open-minded and objective, but unconsciously, we tend to like people who look like us, think like us and come from backgrounds similar to ours. Research has shown that the beliefs and values gained from our family, culture and a lifetime of experiences heavily influence how we view and evaluate both others and ourselves.

This stems from the perceptual lens through which we view the world, filtering what we notice and what we don’t. We can see this in some very mundane ways: if you or your partner has been pregnant, did you suddenly start to notice more pregnant women? If you were looking for a new car, did you suddenly start to see that car more often in commercials and on the street? Our perceptive lens enables us to see certain things and miss others, depending on the focus of our unconscious. It filters the evidence that we collect, generally supporting our existing points-of-view.

So, while we may think we are making decisions based on logic, as humans, we all make assumptions about other people. In fact, it only takes a tenth of a second for us to begin to form an opinion about someone we’ve only just met. 

This rapid judgement is an evolutionary survival instinct that may have served us well in the past but is now responsible for creating tremendous inequalities in our society. We all have unconscious biases and therefore it is incumbent on us all to recognise and address them – but how?

Identifying your own unconscious biases is the first step to creating better inclusivity and there are some tactics we can keep in mind to help. Here are some tips for identifying your own biases and supporting those around you to do the same: 

  • Challenge yourself and others: If you notice unconscious bias, move towards your discomfort. Discover what your biases are, so that you can seek to correct them.
  • Learn your shared identity: Identify shared values, ideals and goals that are consistent across members of your workplace. This might be done by focusing on a specific project you have in common, for example.
  • Be curious: Show an interest in each individual. Get to know them. You may discover that you have more in common than you thought.
  • Listen: Ensure that every member of the organisation is heard and that their ideas or feedback or opinions are acknowledged and treated as equally important as anyone else.
  • Tailor your communication: Use a range of communication media and techniques: ensure policies and important information are circulated widely and in appropriate languages. 
  • Be respectful: Consider any special needs the individuals on your team may have. They may observe different holidays, or even have different hours of operation. Be mindful of time zone differences and work to keep everyone involved aware and respectful of such differences.
  • Be empathetic: Notice and acknowledge if someone is struggling to join in and help them to find a solution so they feel included. Perhaps a co-worker doesn’t seem to understand what you are saying, or they can’t physically access something they need due to disability.
  • Speak up: If you hear someone using language that isolates, ostracises, or in any way degrades an individual in your workplace, speak up. Set an expectation that this is not acceptable.
  • Empower difference: Use an individual’s differences to their advantage. Recognise and appreciate staff by using their skills and talents such as their unique language skills, to assist other staff or clients.

Above all, remember that patience, courtesy and a bit of curiosity go a long way. Don’t be afraid to talk to your team members and find out how you can improve their experience at work and ensure they feel included.

About the expert

Marcela has more than 20 years’ experience in providing psychological services across a range of industries including health, finance and human resource. Her experience includes counselling, critical incident stress management, manager support, mediation, organisational consulting and training. Understanding the needs of an individual, team or organisation and empowering them to find solutions and help themselves is Marcela’s passion. She is interested in promoting well-being and mental wellness in all its aspects from physical to mental to emotional.

She draws on her skills and expertise to effectively manage clinical services at AccessEAP. She is also responsible for the design and delivery of mental health programs, and professional and personal development training.

Marcela has a Masters Degree in Psychology, Honours Degree in Psychology and a member of Australian Psychological Society.

Image description: Marcela is wearing a blue and white blouse under a black blazer. She is standing in an office, holding a black folder in front of her. She has blonde, shoulder-length hair.