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What’s Working? The Impact of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Unconscious bias is a term familiar to many but a phenomenon that often goes unseen.

Put simply, it is a set of predetermined beliefs that we hold about people. These can play into stereotypes and be picked up and carried throughout life without us noticing.

The problem is that, while unintentional, these biases are deeply ingrained and able to influence our behaviour. This can, in turn, affect how people are treated in the workplace.

From her extensive work as a mediator, Vhi expert Treacy O’Connor knows the importance of relationships in creating a healthy, supportive workplace. She also knows how vital it is for employers to pay heed to their own unconscious bias and how it can manifest among staff.

Here, O’Connor explains how to tackle unconscious bias to build stronger team morale and what’s working in Irish workplaces right now.

How does unconscious bias affect the workplace?

It can create situations where people with different backgrounds can be closed off to each other. We can put our bias ahead of listening to the wisdom someone is sharing, and this can result in miscommunication between colleagues. As a result, people feel unheard, uncomfortable and demoralised.

Can it go beyond how we perceive people?

Absolutely. A business can have an unconscious bias towards profit rather than the wellbeing of their employees. For example, a person’s unconscious bias can say “I’m more of a leader or I’m getting paid more so therefore I matter more.” Which can have knock-on effects throughout the entire workplace. People might then perceive themselves as not mattering. That their work isn’t valued, which can have big effects on productivity and morale.

What advice should we give to employees before a problem arises?

If someone is being discriminated against, they might be afraid to open up about how they feel. The best thing they can do is bring it to their line manager. Be open about it and tell them: “this is what I’m feeling and I’m feeling it’s stopping me from doing my work.” Then let [the line manager] escalate it from there.

What methods work when it comes to combatting unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias can be difficult to see, so bring in a facilitator to help determine if there are any biases.

After that, acknowledge that there are biases. Then ask: “how do we need to change the way we communicate and the way we think?” Remember, businesses are run by people so you have to look at the individual biases as much as the organisational biases to really open up the conversation.

How does this all tie in to developing a strong workplace culture?

It can result in more collaboration, creativity and better morale. Everything is better when we’re lifting each other up instead of trying to tear each other down. A more diverse workforce can also help develop stronger and deeper relationships between colleagues.

I also think knowing that other people have experiences different to ours brings more understanding and openness to communication, which can change our perceptions and broaden our horizons.

What’s one suggestion you’d have to improve the Irish workplace?

To try and be more open in our communication with each other. To take a step back and realise that everyone has a story and to try and be a bit more understanding overall. It’s leading to more productivity and better engagement from employees which is good for everyone.

Looking for more information on how Vhi can help you support your employees? Simply speak to your account manager or visit vhi.ie/employers