The Impact of Unconscious Bias on Employee Engagement and Retention

Guest Blog by Rachel Collar

While many of us have encountered the term ‘unconscious bias’, it’s tempting to think it affects others and not ourselves. The truth is, unconscious bias impacts everyone to some extent. Often described as a ‘hidden flaw’, evidence shows that regardless of our role or position, everyone can display hidden prejudices unknowingly.

For business leaders, recognising and addressing unconscious bias is crucial to ensure it doesn’t influence our behaviour and decisions at work. If left unchecked, unconscious bias can prevent the development of an inclusive and open-minded company culture, compromise integrity, restrict workforce diversity, and impede career progression.

Before we proceed further, let’s define unconscious bias and explore its various forms.

What is Unconscious Bias?

Imperial College London defines unconscious (or implicit) bias as “a term that describes the associations we hold, outside our conscious awareness and control”. They further explain it as being “…triggered by our brain automatically making quick judgments and assessments”. These associations can be shaped by numerous factors, including personal experiences, background, and cultural contexts.

Contrary to common belief, it is not limited to gender or ethnicity. Traits such as height, names, or even our preferred sports can trigger mental shortcuts leading to unconscious bias.

Types of Unconscious Bias

Hidden prejudices can manifest themselves in different ways and in different workplace scenarios, including:

  • Affinity Bias: Our unconscious human tendency to stay in our comfort zone and lean towards other people with similar backgrounds, interests, and beliefs as us.
  • Confirmation Bias: When we actively seek out evidence about a candidate that confirms why we like them; or, if we don’t like an applicant, selectively look for the reasons that prove we’re right.
  • Cultural Bias: When we judge a person or a group by the standards fundamental to our own culture.
  • Gender Bias: Prejudicing an individual based on their gender and perpetuating stereotypes, i.e., calling a woman ‘bossy’ for showing ambition while describing a man as ‘focused’.

Why Does Unconscious Bias Matter to You and Your Business?

Put simply, unconscious bias can impact our perception of, and interaction with, others. Not only is this harmful for your ED&I (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) efforts, but it can have a detrimental impact on your overall business success. It can influence key business decisions and create inequality in areas such as recruitment, performance management, and career progression.

The Consequences of Unconscious Bias

As business leaders, what happens when we let our unconscious biases come to the surface:

  • Biased Hiring Practices: Recruitment is the pipeline for new types of people into your business. However, if we only hire people we like, or we believe are the right ‘fit’, then our organisation becomes homogeneous and we miss out on a broader, more diverse talent pool. Also, if your adverts or job descriptions use gendered language, or if you’re advertising on social media only, you may be excluding certain groups.
  • Clouded Judgment in Performance Management: Unconscious bias could impact how managers approach performance reviews and feedback in their teams; for example, they could unfairly inflate, or deflate, ratings during appraisal season, and impact pay rise or disciplinary actions. If someone feels overlooked, and you’re not giving the people a chance when they deserve it, then you might have a flight risk – or an employment tribunal claim.
  • Misguided Promotion Decisions: Our promotion decisions become misguided if we fail to give someone an opportunity because we ascribe certain characteristics to them that they don’t necessarily have, rather than base our decision on merit. This also means we can favour someone unfairly because we think they have positive characteristics, again that they don’t necessarily hold.
  • Repelling Top Talent: Attracting top talent into your organisation will drive creativity and innovation, bring in a ton of new ideas and enhance your brand image – and you are building your future leaders. But, if you don’t offer, in return, a business with a diverse and inclusive workforce that’s bursting with a broad range of perspectives, backgrounds and experiences, then you’ll push that talent away in droves.
  • Plummeting Engagement: Unconscious bias is a contributing factor to a spike in turnover and a drop in retention rates. If people don’t feel they’re being treated fairly, that their contributions are not being valued, and they feel excluded and isolated, it will lower their engagement. Disengagement could soon lead to their departure.

Unconscious bias is not something that can be eliminated overnight; it’s an ongoing, continuous process of improvement. However, by recognising and actively addressing our unconscious biases, and becoming aware of our thought patterns, we can become better leaders.

HR leaders and business owners have a duty to foster a culture where everyone feels included, treated fairly, and valued for who they are.

For comprehensive Professional Development Training Courses, contact Paradise Training on 01604 655900 or visit Need expert HR services? Connect with our trusted partner, Rachel Collar at Haus of HR.

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