Four steps to addressing unconscious bias

by Cameron Edmond01 Oct 2013

Staff turnover in Australia isn’t looking pretty. The national annual average is 15.5%*. In an organisation of 4,000 employees, this translates into 600 new employees a year, and 1,800 (45% of the total employee base) in a three year period.

These numbers directly feed into the perception of HR as a cost centre and not a revenue raiser in many organisations, as recruitment costs can weigh heavily on the bottom-line.

Pamela Young, author of Stepping Up, believes that through optimising diversity to achieve growth, this turnover rate can be reduced greatly. However, before tackling the diversity issue, organisations must be aware of the unconscious assumptions that dwell at the surface of organisational cultures.

Evidence suggests that Australia has come to a standstill in workplace diversity, particularly around established diversity areas such as gender. Geoffrey Court, head of people and culture at Salmat – an organisation which boasts a Woman In Leadership Council among other diversity initiatives – told HC many organisations are struggling.

“It’s hit a plateau in the last 10 years; women aren’t advancing any faster … some big changes have been made, but some even bigger ones have yet to be made,” he said.

Young stated that organisations must first address the four cultural bind spots before embarking on diversity innovations:


The power of assumptions
While many organisations will combat attitudes and behaviours they view in the organisation, this does not get to the underlying issue. Beneath the surface, these behaviours are driven by unseen cultural assumptions.

“Sustainable permanent change can only be achieved when the assumptions that drive attitudes and behaviors are revealed, challenged and aligned with your goals,” Young explained.


Changing only visible layers
Mentoring, leadership and skills programs are all well and good, but again miss the heart of the issue, according to Young. “Fixing women through leadership and mentoring initiatives, or pay equity and flexible work practices, will not adjust a macho culture.”

Although these initiatives may help accommodate for female staff, decision-makers or other leaders in the organisation many not be swayed to change the path of the organisation, ultimately keeping any ‘boys’ club’ mentalities intact.


Recognise and respect subcultures

Most importantly, organisations must not underestimate the existence of multiple assumptions and values that may exist in the organisation. Subcultures that operate within an organisation will see different thought patterns and beliefs emerge, which can result in an array of unconscious assumptions existing, all which must be approached with the same level of respect as the next.


The impact of other cultures

On a broader scale, external cultures that employees bring into the workplace can cause tension. When this tension arises, employees must often choose whether to integrate or leave, with the latter resulting in increased turnover and higher recruitment costs.

The need to address these issues transcends the individual organisation.


“If [organisations] can influence attitudes and behaviours in society we’d have fewer problems with behaviours that impact performance at work,” Young stated. “Over time that would help to build a more unified and cohesive workforce reducing the costs of staff turnover and preparing stronger businesses and communities ready to take on the economic challenges of the 21st century.”


*AIM National Survey 2010: found companies with $10m+ annual turnover have an average staff turnover of 15.5%.





  • by Dr Grant Robertson 1/10/2013 3:39:56 PM

    One wonders why there is still such a focus on unconscious bias as the 'main feature' in diversity challenges when, although it has been a key focus for almost the same decade, little progress has been made? While it is undoubtedly an important consideration, organisations will likely move ahead much more quickly if they focused on building and nurturing inclusive cultures.

    Another reason for doubting its apparent status as a 'magic pill' or 'silver bullet' is the admission by one of the originators of the concept (implicit bias), Dr Anthony Greenwald, that “caution is warranted in speculating that repeated interventions…will have enduring effects on levels of implicit bias.” Other researchers found that “[ordinary] diversity training…designed to alter attitudes and behaviour [is] generally ineffective and, in some circumstances, counterproductive.”

    One cannot simply do more of what's been done before and hope for different outcomes! A fresh perspective is required.

  • by Powell 27/11/2014 5:26:46 AM

    Good info. Lucky me I recently found your site by accident (stumbleupon). I have book-marked it for later!

  • by Amanda Rochford 27/11/2014 2:30:12 PM

    We seem to have difficulty getting a balance between male and female let alone anything else. Age, race, socio economic status, disability, education, sexual preference are all symptoms of the same illness. Any variance in these areas provides a different point of view that is highly valuable. So instead of questioning whether 'someone with that background or characteristic ie a tatoo' is suitable to place in a client service role perhaps we could ask ourselves 'what broader perspective would a person with that background or characteristic (a tatoo) bring to the role?' Its all about the questions you ask yourself.

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