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As I was preparing for an Unconscious Bias programme, I popped out of the office for a quick visit to my Osteopath.  On my arrival I spent a few moments waiting for the receptionist to finish a phone call before introducing myself.  When she was ready she looked up from her desk to inquire if I was the driver of the taxi that she had ordered for a patient. My first thought was @#$%! and why would she expect me to be the taxi driver. Then I realised that I was casually dressed, am of Indian decent (as many taxi drivers in Melbourne are) and I had stood patiently waiting for her to finish her conversation rather than take a seat with the other waiting clients.  For all of these reasons I believe that she made an immediate judgement (based on my ethnicity and possibly dress) that led her to conclude that I was a taxi driver- please understand that I have nothing against taxi drivers. 

We all have biases both conscious and unconscious.  They help us to navigate our social interactions and judgements and drive our decisions and behaviours; however, we do need to have an awareness of what they are and when they are influencing our decisions and behaviours.

An unconscious bias is just that unconscious.  They are prejudices or assumptions that are made about another person or group, rather than thoughtful judgement.  They can be demonstrated in many different forms of behaviours and reactions, such as excluding individuals from conversations, failing to give due attention or acknowledgement during conversations or excluding conversation participation via discussion topics such as sport or politics.

We all have unconscious biases, but how do we begin to understand what they are and their impacts?  It begins with our own awareness raising. Here are some simple questions/strategies to get you started.

  • Acknowledge that you have biases.  Spend a moment to consider what you think they are, think of past examples of how they have transferred into actions or behaviours. 
  • How accountable to yourself and others are you?  Are you brave when you observe unconscious bias behaviours? Do you express your observations? If so, how do you do this?
  • Think about the obvious differences that might lie within your workplace, sporting teams, or even your social life.  How have/do you manage these differences?  What are some of the behaviours that you have engaged in that demonstrate an awareness of your personal unconscious biases? 
  • Consider the quietest people in your teams how do you treat them?  Are they heard?  Are they encouraged and provided with a place to express themselves in a manner that might be less public yet equally as heard?
  • You may have in fact experienced some unconscious behaviour against yourself.  Consider the impact that they had on you and the outcomes.  How did you manage the situation and what could you have done differently?

I doubt that the receptionist at the practice was aware of her unconscious bias behaviour or how I received it.  As well as pointing out to her that I was there as a patient and that her assumption that I was the taxi driver was incorrect, I asked the question - how did she make the assumption that I wasn't a patient. I hope that by drawing attention to the comment, it highlighted to her a level of self-awareness of her unconscious bias.

We are always interested in your feedback so please let us know if you have any.

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Best Wishes
Tom Verghese

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  How bias aware are you?  




Ross maintains that human beings are consistently and routinely bias and that we almost never know when we are being biased. Everyday Bias offers some great insights to understanding how to overcome and identify unconscious biases in our lives.  He advocates strongly for the creation of more bias-conscious organisations in the belief that productivity, personal happiness and social growth are possible if we first understand the powerful nature of the biases we don't even realise we have. 

Ross argues that probably the most important way that bias affects organisations is in the management of talent and carefully considers 10 aspects of the talent management system.  Apart from the case studies and stories, I particularly enjoyed the appendix that includes lessons for handling conflict and bias in the workplace. 

The book is full of some great anecdotes and case studies from his 30+ years working as a diversity consultant.  It is a great blend of evidence-based data, research and Ross's own personal knowledge and experiences.
"Everyday Bias Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgements in Our Daily Lives" By Howard, J. Ross (2014)

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