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Unconscious Bias – an Issue for Irish Business?

by Dr. Clare O’Hagan

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screen-shot-2013-02-26-at-3-52-39-pmRecently, two black men arrived early to a business meeting at a Starbucks Coffee Shop in Philadelphia.  One man asked to use the bathroom without making a purchase, then calmly joined his friend at a table, whereupon the police arrived, arrested them and escorted them out. The businessmen had been waiting for an associate to arrive and had asked to use the bathroom when the Starbucks Manager called the police. The public outcry which followed led to Starbucks closing all of its 8,000 US Coffee shops on 29 May to provide unconscious bias training for all employees.

Could this happen in Ireland?

In March, Lidl Ireland apologised unreservedly to a woman and her eight-year-old son after they were approached by a staff member in the Lidl store in Nutgrove, Rathfarnham, with their autism assistance dog and asked to leave.  Following this incident, the supermarket chain announced a major autism-awareness initiative.   An Azerbaijani student who was refused entry to the Turk’s Head public house in Dublin was awarded €1,500 for distress, humiliation and other effects of the racial discrimination he suffered. In December 2017 a hotel was ordered to pay €3,000 in compensation to a Traveller for the way he and his family were refused admission to a restaurant and in another case that month, four Traveller men were compensated €6,000 each after being refused service in a bar in Maynooth.

The employees who made these decisions to refuse entry to customers were making decisions based on stereotypes, rather than on rational judgement. This is the effect of unconscious, or implicit, biases, which are preferences for particular types of people and are formed by our experiences and our exposure to stereotypes about other groups of people.  Everyone has biases because our fundamental way of looking at the world is driven by a ‘hard-wired’ pattern of making unconscious decisions about others, based on what feels safe, likeable, valuable, and competent.

People exercise bias in decisions because it is natural to evaluate people quickly, based on appearance, stereotypes and comparisons with ourselves. To avoid employees exercising implicit bias and offending your customers, organisations need to make employees aware of unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias is not just limited to decisions about customers, it affects decision making in employment such as hiring, promotion, performance evaluations and levels of compensation.

In January, the State’s further education and training authority, Solas, was ordered to pay €20,000 to an employee after it was found to have discriminated against him on the grounds of age. At the interview, the 60-year-old employee was asked ‘Do you not think at this stage that you should be taking it easier?’.  The question reflects the stereotype that older people do not want increased responsibility/workload. Reflecting the same bias, in May, RTE was ordered to pay €50,000 to former employee journalist Valerie Cox for age discrimination and in a similar case, a family-run retail business was ordered to pay a woman €12,000 after ending her employment when she turned 66.

The CSO found that 11 per cent of employees in Ireland experienced discrimination: 29 per cent on the age ground, 28 per cent on race/ethnicity and 12 per cent on gender. The forms of discrimination included bullying, harassment, promotions, and pay and conditions.

Raising awareness of unconscious bias in decision making is not only beneficial for avoiding expensive and harmful discrimination claims, damaging organisational reputation, and high levels of turnover, it leads to greater diversity and employee engagement.

Diversity is a business-critical factor in the ability to innovate, attract clients and partners, and retain and cultivate the best talent. Diverse and inclusive teams make stronger teams, and strong teams make better business sense. Identity diversity among intelligent people on a team contributes more to effective problem-solving than a team comprised of best-performing, intelligent people without identity diversity.

Addressing unconscious bias also directly affects the bottom line: For every 1 per cent rise in gender diversity, there is a 3 per cent rise in sales revenue.  For every 1 per cent rise in ethnic diversity, there is a 9 per cent rise in sales revenue.

Unconscious bias training is effective when it is designed to create awareness of the problem as it affects a particular organisation, whether that is customer relations, recruitment and promotion decisions, or performance evaluations. The training should provide an incentive or motivation for employees and managers to do something about it, and training should include strategies for what to do to avoid exercising biases in future.

For expert advice on dealing with unconscious bias or any aspect of employment equality, diversity and inclusion, call Insight HR on 056 770 1060 or email mcullen@insighthr.ie

 

 

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