New Zealand Law Society - Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias

NZLS CLE offers a free webinar on unconscious bias. For more information, visit the NZLS CLE website.

The New Zealand workforce is becoming more diverse. Diversity is a fact, and describes characteristics of a population such as gender, ethnicity, disability, religious belief and sexual orientation.

Inclusion is a behaviour describing how people are treated. To make the most of diversity, organisations must also be inclusive. One barrier to achieving an inclusive workplace is unconscious bias.

What is unconscious bias?

Everyone has biases shaped by their social environment, background and personal experiences. Some biases are conscious, such as choosing to hire individuals with a certain amount of experience.

If someone has an unconscious bias, they are unaware of their preferences and think they are acting objectively. Many different characteristics such as height, physical appearance, gender, ethnicity and age can be subject to unconscious bias. Working arrangements can also be affected by unconscious biases such as negative preconceptions about flexible work. Unconscious bias affects multiple areas in the workplace, including:

  • the recruitment and promotion process
  • performance ratings
  • tasks assigned to employees
  • bonuses and benefits
  • the culture of a firm

While often unnoticed, research has shown that unconscious bias is just as harmful if not more damaging than overt bias.

What organisations can do

Gender equality and inclusion are not just important for individuals, but also firm performance. Research by McKinsey & Co has consistently shown a positive relationship between diversity and business success. Their latest report also shows that the relationship between diversity on executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has strengthened over time. Several important factors include:

  • better talent recruitment
  • customer orientation
  • higher employee satisfaction
  • improved decision making

Fortunately, unconscious bias is becoming better understood and more widely focused on in the New Zealand workplace. The Law Society’s suggestions for firms wanting to address unconscious bias are to:

  • Start the conversation about unconscious bias in the workplace
  • Start from the top. Educating management and human resources staff about unconscious bias can help to build an inclusive culture within an organisation
  • Consider unconscious bias training for all employees (and for Gender Equality Charter signatories, ensure that all legal staff undertake it)
  • Encourage employees to watch the free NZLS CLE Ltd unconscious bias webinar

Simply being aware of unconscious bias may not bring about change by itself, but as the author of this London School of Economics article explains, it can serve as a foundation from which to take further action, such as:

  • Consider blind recruitment or contextual recruitment. Considering unconscious bias in recruitment can help with sourcing talent and showing employees a commitment to diversity
  • Have diverse recruitment and promotion panels and interviewers
  • Be vocal about diversity and inclusion
  • Don’t fall into the the merit trap
  • Ensure transparent performance ratings and promotion criteria

What individuals can do

Addressing unconscious bias is also important for individuals. New Zealand lawyers can contribute to an inclusive workplace and make better decisions by recognising where unconscious bias exists and taking steps to counter it. As an individual, some steps you can take to counter unconscious bias are to:

  1. Recognise that everyone has unconscious biases
  2. Identify what your unconscious biases are. Harvard IAT tests are designed to assist with this. You can take a test for free at Project Implicit
  3. Analyse and confront biases. For example, making the effort to spend time with people different from you and sharing positive experiences can reduce unconscious bias
  4. Avoid making quick decisions. When decisions are made quickly, they are more likely to be impacted by unconscious bias than decisions that are given more thought
  5. Recognise that when we do not know information, the tendency is to fill gaps with predetermined biases
  6. Think about what more information might be needed to make the best decisions

Further reading and resources