The perils of unconscious bias at work: There are some judgements you’d be better off not making

Would you immediately judge someone with a limp handshake
A few weeks ago, I landed at Washington Dulles and was met by a driver holding a sign. He was short, bald, around 60 years old and wearing a flat cap (Eastern European, I thought). He then explained how he went back to get the sign so I would find him (clearly not that bright). He spent ages telling me about there being water and mints in the rear of the car for me, should I want them (he sees me as superior. Could really do without listening to dull chit-chat tonight).
He asked me where I am from. I told him. I remembered my wise friend Salma who always talks to cab drivers about their lives/family/heritage. So I reciprocated, still under duress (Poland? Estonia?).
He told me that he came to the US from Afghanistan 25 years ago, and that people always mistake his accent for Eastern European. It turns out that he got his MBA two years ago and that he is the published author of A History of the Russian wars in Afghanistan. We had a fascinating conversation and as soon as I got to my hotel, I ordered a copy of his book.


This is just one real example of unconscious bias in practice. I was judging this man before I knew the facts, and I got it very wrong. Jumping to conclusions is completely normal – everyone does it every day in every situation. But at work, in hiring situations, with new teams – even with colleagues we think we know – unconscious bias can be a barrier to spotting talent and enabling people to reach their full potential.
The thousands of fleeting assumptions, predictions, and judgments we make about people are based not only about the things we can see – like age, ethnicity and dress, but also on how we perceive people based on behaviour. Let me give you another example.
A colleague and I arrived at a big corporation to meet the head of legal services. We were greeted and shown to the meeting room by a shy retiring young assistant with a limp, soggy handshake. Only when he sat down, did we realise our mistake.
Research points to the fact that an introvert brain in the twenty-first century, with all its modern day distractions, will think more deeply and focus more thoroughly on an issue than an extrovert brain counterpart. And yet we are much more likely to promote the extrovert into leadership positions and look for that behaviour when we’re working out who has the power, and the knowledge, in the room.
In meetings, it’s always the one who’s speaking loudest, shoots from the hip and makes decisions quickly who gets noticed. The person in the background who is processing the information at several levels deeper than everyone else, who is likely to come up with a far better risk assessed, broader decision, is very likely to be excluded rather than included.


And it’s not only the unconscious biases that we have to look out for. The chief executive of a law firm client was emphatic that every person with a tattoo displays a complete lack of judgement. When we pushed him to think of any possible exceptions, he came up with an entrepreneur and philanthropist who was his very first client.
Tackling unconscious bias paves the way for greater diversity and inclusion, which is good for business. Managers who only hire in their own image risk a group-think culture, which we know, post-financial crisis, is a risk too far. Waking up to unconscious bias helps ensure that we don’t miss out on the best talent – and the resulting diversity of experience, culture, ethnicity, sexuality and age that keeps businesses relevant and innovating.

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