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Unconscious Bias Inhibits Employee Productivity

28 September 2012

Managers running scared of getting to know their staff

A new study by the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion (enei) today suggests that the politically correct climate inside well-intentioned companies may actually be damaging their business.

Sponsored by BT, the research on unconscious bias and staff / manager relationships showed that managers were often anxious about having conversations with employees that involved talking about their differences.  Staff members were also anxious about saying the wrong thing to their colleagues and causing offence.  This lack of openness leads to misunderstandings and anxiety which, in turn, is shown to have a damaging effect on working relationships which are so critical to business success. 

One of the key findings is that this anxiety, or the concern about causing offence leads to ‘social distancing’ behaviours between managers and staff members. This is seen to have a negative impact on businesses as employees, and the individuals they report to, often fail to capitalise on more informal relationships within the workplace.

The research also shows that managers and staff often have a ‘bias blind spot’ where they assume they are treating everyone the same, but in fact are favouring people who look or sound most like them. It found that managers often develop better informal relationships with staff members that were more similar to them and that those staff members enjoy better ‘sponsorship’ within their companies.

Dan Robertson, enei’s diversity & inclusion director said:

“We have known for some time that making people anxious about what they can ask their colleagues actually increases the chances of any biases playing out as behaviour in the workplace.  Our study says that the culture inside organisations of not mentioning the ways in which we differ for fear of saying the wrong thing actually has the opposite effect.  It leaves people confused and anxious, but also creates social distance between staff.  We also know that the closeness of working relationships between managers and their staff predicts employee performance.”

The findings suggest that managers try to treat everyone the same and ignore differences such as sex, race, religion, sexuality and bodyweight. However, in reality, more than one in five have biases which were operating unseen and unintentionally, below the fairness radar of managers.

Caroline Waters OBE, Director, People and Policy for BT says:

“Inclusion is not about treating people the same, but about embracing, celebrating and learning from the differences between us and responding to these in a way that ensures our society benefits from our combined abilities. It is important to recognise that we all have biases but not to let them, or our fear of causing offence, get in the way of relationships at work. If we do, we miss the opportunity to enrich our lives and bring success to our businesses through understanding diversity.

The UK workforce is now much more diverse and it’s time for a new, more honest conversation about the need to purposely understand the nature of difference.”

There is also good news for employers. Staff and managers often described their relationship as excellent or very good and 78.8% of people had no bias or bias not affecting behaviour.  The research showed that even when bias was present, some managers were still able to manage it fairly. In working relationships where there was genuine trust and discussions about difference, these tended to have an inoculatory effect. 

Dan Robertson added “It seems we can have biases but that they tend to be most active when people see themselves as different from each other.  Where people had found common ground, for example common life experiences, work goals or values, then bias didn’t damage the relationship. This has significant consequences for how we discuss issues of diversity and difference in the workplace.”

enei’s study also has major implications for the way new staff are introduced to their job and the organisation. It shows that managers need to be more “nosey” and to better understand all of their staff, not just the ones they feel more comfortable with just because they look and sound the same as them.  The research suggests that building trust and understanding can often resolve issues without the need for grievances or disciplinary procedures.

Members can read the Research Report.

Tips for a modern workplace:

  1. Encourage staff and managers to recognise that we all have biases and that these are both normal and often do not have major effects on our behaviour towards others.
  2. Create an environment that makes open and honest conversation about differences easy to have – at induction or less informal dealings with staff, colleagues should not feel afraid to ask about people’s lives.
  3. Managers and staff should stop worrying about choosing the right thing to say. Such anxiety makes bias control more difficult.
  4. Organisational leaders and managers should role model inclusive behaviours

To support businesses to progress their diversity and inclusion in the workplace, enei will soon launch  its Unconscious Bias toolkit: a guide to smarter and fairer working practices.

For further information please contact:

Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion

Dan Robertson T: 07946 466180  E: dan.robertson@enei.org.uk

Equal Opportunities Review Article 

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