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Recognising unconscious bias to encourage diversity and support inclusion

Unconscious bias is the consequence of a biological shorthand to enable quick decision making. It enabled the first human beings to decide in a split second who was friend or foe, purely by assessing whether another person looked and behaved like them. This biological shorthand is still in use, enabling humans to process large amounts of information and experiences simultaneously, relying on assumptions that formulate explicit and unconscious biases.

In some contexts, these instinctive assumptions can enable us to move forward quickly with high pressure deadlines, allowing for quick decisions based on past experience and learned behaviour. However, the ability to process information quickly is reliant on assumptions and unconscious bias, which can be discriminatory and harmful to those around us.  

In striving for excellence, each of us has a responsibility to improve our individual understanding of how we make assumptions about other people. This responsibility requires that we take purposeful action to manage unconscious bias and keep it in check with increased sensitivity which is critical to promoting the equitable treatment of others. There are enormous personal and business benefits in nurturing interpersonal relationships, which also help to enable better decision making and reinforce a positive corporate reputation.

Being committed to diversity and inclusion means that each of us must have the desire, the awareness, and the knowledge around what drives inclusion and what obstructs it. A critical aspect of making progress in this area begins with having the courage to admit to our own frames of reference; recognising how our perceptions of others are shaped by our unconscious biases; as well as understanding how and why they are formed in the first place. This requires critical thinking and acknowledging that the effects of bias are not always obvious. Each micro-decision that is negatively impacted by bias can over time have a damaging impact on diversity and inclusion at a macro-level. 

If allowed to go unidentified and unaddressed for prolonged periods, unconscious bias can have a negative effect on employee engagement, retention, career development, and business reputation. With that in mind, it can also create large scale structural disparities within organisations. Ignoring this risk is completely counterintuitive to many of the goals that most businesses strive for in their strategies around employee wellbeing, increased growth and profitability.  

To make better business decisions means being aware that our perceptions of others may be flawed from uninterrupted bias in action. To choose not to recognise the existence of unconscious bias, means that we absolve ourselves of our responsibility to challenge our thinking and interrupt bias when it comes to the people around us. If we are not consciously applying our minds to this, we are not creating an inclusive environment, nor are we creating a platform to reap the benefits that diversity brings, in the form of better collaboration, innovation and creativity. 

At RSM we are committed to putting people first and this means continuously questioning and challenging the basis on which we make decisions. We have made great strides in our approach to diversity and inclusion in recent years. However, we recognise that what we have achieved so far plays a small part within a very long journey and we remain committed to this journey of analysis and discovery, which will then be actioned in our daily decisions.   

As human beings, our unconscious bias is the result of human advancement, designed to protect us from danger. As we take care to understand how the heart beats, it is also important to take time to understand how the mind works and what makes each of us tick. It is through this understanding that collectively we can take the next step in our evolution to promote the equitable treatment of others and share in that success together.

Author(s)

Jean M Stephens
Chief Executive Officer