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Ways to reduce unconscious bias at the workplace

February 2, 2021

Are you allowed to fire someone because you don’t like them? Perhaps.  Are you allowed to fire someone because you don’t like their accent? Probably not.

The difference is that someone’s accent may relate to their place of origin or ethnicity, both of which are protected human rights grounds under the Ontario Human Rights Code. The accent doesn’t need to be the sole reason for the firing to violate the Code. It could be just one factor among legitimate concerns. 

But what if you are not aware that what bothers you about the person is their accent? This is where unconscious bias comes into the picture.

Unconscious biases, also known as implicit biases, are stereotypes that form outside of your conscious awareness.  They are usually ingrained societal beliefs that relate to gender, age, race, weight, and other factors, that affect the way you behave. They are often part of the “gut” feeling that you can’t put your finger on when you make quick judgments.

There are two good reasons why you should take steps to eliminate unconscious biases at your workplace.

First, it’s the right thing to do.  Discriminating against someone, even unknowingly, is unfair.  Employers should only treat people differently based on morally relevant grounds.

Second, it helps productivity. Employees who feel welcomed at their workplace are more likely to stay.  Gender inequality, for example, has led many women to leave the workplace or settle in positions below their skill level. A recent report projects that closing the gender gap in the workplace by 2026 can increase Canada’s GDP by $150 billion.

Here are some tips on how you can help reduce unconscious bias in the workplace:

  • Take your time – You are more likely to make a biased decision if you rush.  Because unconscious biases are often ingrained stereotypes, they need reflection and scrutiny to identify. Stop to contemplate the reasons why you’re making a decision, including factors that seem unlikely to you at first blush.
  • Educate yourself and others – You can promote awareness of unconscious biases by attending and promoting regular equality and diversity training, including unconscious bias training.  
  • Analyze and identify your blind spots –Try to identify what biases most likely affect your workplace. Is your field or area of business traditionally male-dominated?  When you look around, do you see a mostly male workforce? Perhaps female candidates have been overlooked because of unconscious and unfair assumptions.
  • Consider new approaches to recruitment ­– Diversify your hiring committee to help ensure that good candidates are not being missed for irrelevant reasons.  Consider removing information from an applicant’s resume that may unknowingly affect your hiring decision, such as their name and address. Write job postings using gender neutral and inclusive language.
  • Promote inclusivity – As mentioned in Natasha’s post about gender inclusivity, make diversity and equality a visible part of your workplace.  Support diversity initiatives and call out discriminatory behaviour. Taking a supportive stand will send a positive message that conscious and unconscious discrimination is not welcome at your workplace.