Why Combating Unconscious Biases in Workplaces Is Good for Business, and for Wellbeing

Let’s make Pride month irrelevant

All too often businesses devise initiatives and actions in support of their gay, lesbian, bi and trans employees only to mark specific occasions, like Pride, without having a longer-term strategy or vision of what they want to achieve.

Although we all love a celebration, the priority for any business should be to make times like Pride irrelevant to them as their workplace cultures should be so inclusive that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are simply non-issues.

Unfortunately, we are still a long way away from this scenario.

The impacts on wellbeing

Creating mentally healthier workplaces means enabling every single employee to be their authentic self, to not have to hide parts of their identity for fear of being treated less favourably than others.

It may seem surprising, but according to Stonewall Work Report, today 62% of millennials who were “out” at university still choose to hide their sexual orientation when they enter the workplace for fear of being discriminated and of compromising their career prospects.

This has of course a direct, detrimental impact on their mental health and wellbeing, as well as on their ability to be productive and, ultimately, to thrive in the organisation.

Conforming to the status quo

How is this possible in this day and age one might ask, especially in countries like the United Kingdom where LGBT+ people have achieved full equality under the law, can benefit from visible role models on TV, and are more connected than ever, with new LGBT+ networks being launched on a regular basis.

Well, the answer is to be found in the very peculiar nature of workplaces, a microcosm where people often feel they need to meet certain expectations, conform to a way of being that will allow them to “fit in”. Men wear suits, women high heels; men need to be confident, aggressive, career focused; women should be supportive and caring. Everyone should fit within this binary because the workplace likes certainty and simplicity. Trans, gender fluid, queer individuals pose a threat to this status quo and therefore are often made to feel they should hide their identity and do their utmost best to “be normal”.

Normality is not a particularly helpful concept as it’s definition and interpretation is very subjective, personal and highly influenced by a variety of socio-cultural ‘norms’ people subscribe to.

What is more helpful in this context is the notion of what is “usual” in a given setting. What is considered part of the day to day life and experience in that environment. In a workplace, one might simply define it as “business as usual”.

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Business as usual?

That’s why the fundamental question businesses should ask at Pride (and on any other day) is: “is LGBT+ Inclusion business as usual in our workplace?” In other words: “Are LGBT+ employees recognised, valued, supported and respected in exactly the same way as anyone else?”

Many business leaders will probably quickly jump to a “yes of course” answer, and often they do mean it, but they are unaware of the day to day realities their LGBT+ employees face: the banter, the microagressions, and most of all the (un)conscious bias that too often results in LGBT+ employees being treated less favourably than their heterosexual colleagues.

Only when such biased behaviours are eradicated, will businesses be able to say they have created a healthy, happy workplace where everyone can thrive. Because a core element of workplace wellbeing is creating a culture of mutual respect and understanding.

So, whilst education and awareness are crucial to lay the foundations for inclusive and lasting workplace wellbeing, the biggest priority for businesses should be to trigger a behavioural shift that will eradicate exclusive and discriminatory cultures.Taking action in this direction is now more important and urgent than ever.

How might Covid-19 impact on diversity and inclusion?

Over the last couple of months, the global COVID-19 pandemic has forced most of the workforce into lockdown and has changed the way we interact with one another, potentially for a very long time to come.

These are unprecedented times. And in times of uncertainty it is only human to revert back to what feels comfortable and familiar. It feels safer to let our unconscious brain simplify reality for us by using hard-wired patterns, biases and stereotypes. And when this happens at such a large scale, the risk of discriminating against others that are in some way different from us is all too real. This is without a doubt the single biggest threat to workplace wellbeing businesses have ever faced.

The lack of human interaction, the distancing this pandemic has forced us into, is creating a very fertile ground for biases, especially against those aspects of our identity that are not immediately visible, like one’s sexual orientation or some disabilities or mental health problems.

Unconscious stereotypes 

It is therefore our responsibility as individuals to go beyond good intentions and face our imperfections. To do this with conviction, we must first realise that what makes biases and stereotypes particularly dangerous when it comes to people-decision is that it is possible, and if fact quite probable, for us to hold unconscious stereotypes that we consciously oppose.

For example, we probably all consciously strongly believe that men and women can be equally good leaders. But if we are asked to say what comes to mind when hearing the word “leader”, chances are our brain will offer us the image of a man. Or if we think of “family” it is highly likely our mental image will be one of two heterosexual parents with beautiful kids.

In today’s workplaces, biases are problematic because they interfere with our ability to truly treat others fairly and equally. Although we believe we are making objective assessments of merit, hidden stereotypes can cause us to prefer some people over others without us even knowing we are doing so.

The business case for diversity and inclusion agenda

Reducing our biases and eliminating our preconceived and often unfounded perceptions of others, is not just a moral imperative. There is now vast amount of research and evidence showing that a truly inclusive culture has a direct positive impact on a company’s productivity, ability to innovate and, ultimately, on its bottom line.

For example, going back to gender-stereotyping, McKinsey’s most recent “Delivering Through Diversity report” found organisations that embrace gender diversity on their executive teams were more competitive and 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability.

As far as LGBT+ inclusion is concerned, whilst there is less research available on this, a 2019 study conducted by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that companies who had embedded LGBT+ inclusive practices were outperforming those that hadn’t on a number of areas including:

  • Greater employee engagement
  • Improved company brand or reputation
  • Better job applicant pool
  • Higher employee retention

A positive outcome is that when biases start to break down for one disadvantaged group, other groups benefit from it too and as a consequence, the mental wellness of everyone in enhanced.

Combating our biases

So, if you do one thing for Pride this year, take time to equip yourself with the knowledge and skills to combat the negative impact that your biases have on people around you. It will take time and a bit of effort, but it will be worth it. And when we do, eventually, go back to our workplaces, this new skillset, the enhanced ability to go beyond stereotypes, will have a massively positive impact on everyone’s wellbeing.

Some simple steps you can take to get started:

  1. One of the most powerful things to tackle unconscious biases is to break our patterns of thoughts and behaviour.
  2. Take time for reflection and introspection; question why you make certain assumptions about people around you. Do this especially when you are faced with a decision that will affect another person (whether it is about hiring, promotion, a performance review or work allocation) to avoid jumping to biased conclusions.
  3. Try to do things differently, especially if it feels uncomfortable at the start. That sense of initial discomfort is your brain breaking hard-wired patterns and creating new, hopefully more inclusive ones.


About the author

Alex Storer is an experienced inclusion and culture change practitioner. He is the Executive Director of Diversity Pride, a consultancy helping businesses and individuals to accelerate their journey to self-actualization (the psychological state of true fulfilment). He specialises in behavioural change and inclusive leadership and regularly delivers live online training sessions designed to minimise the impact of unconscious bias and to develop more inclusive behaviours.



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