The workplace is filled with unconscious biases, which are effectively social stereotypes a person has developed over time that they are not aware of. They tend to be hard to change, because they're not visible or intended.
According to Paul Sills, a barrister and mediator who presents on the topic of cognitive biases, one of the most dangerous types of unconscious bias is confirmation bias. This results in people filtering information through preconceptions and past experiences.
"We each look at life through our own lens and seek what's known as 'confirmation bias' to filter out information and pick out just the parts that confirm what we think," says Sills. "This kind of bias is the most problematic and everyone suffers from it."
It's easy to associate unconscious biases with discriminating against a person because of their race, age, gender or even their parental life stage, but there are other layers, such as listening to rumours about a workmate's effectiveness and not giving their ideas a chance because you think they aren't capable of a good idea.
"If we make assumptions of what people are going to be like in a role, we condition for failure," says Sills. "But, if you fall victim to it, get the person who is showing you bias to see you in a way that doesn't confirm their biases."
His advice is to do unexpected things — for example, people assume that he, as the lawyer in the room, will get stuck straight into the law, rather than be a quiet and friendly influence.
"Challenge their bias by acting in a way that's contradictory to what they assume you to be," says Sills. "You can catch yourself out all the time, but unfortunately not everyone has the degree of awareness to recognise their biases."
He says that once you're aware of them, you can actively look for diversity and seek out other diverse options on one subject matter to find a less biased view.
"Every engagement is an opportunity to actually learn something new about the other person and ourselves, for a fresh perspective," says Sills. "To put our perspective up to challenge can be confronting for most people — in all walks of life."
In terms of how New Zealand fares compared to other countries, Sills believes we're "not doing that well for a country that's so multicultural. We struggle with it and some of that is to do with small, regionally based businesses not having the depth of cultural diversity that Auckland has.
"My scorecard for us isn't fantastic and I don't think Auckland necessarily gets the most out of its cultural diversity, either."
He says looking at cities around the world that are intensely multicultural, you'll see a huge energy and dynamism, because of the different perspectives on life.
"Multicultural, diverse workplaces bring the best out of everybody," says Sills. "It's a worry when you see staff who look and feel like the owners but they may have been selected because it was felt they would fit in more."
Recruitment is one of the areas where prejudices and unconscious biases come to the surface the strongest, which has brought about HR tactics to combat them, including blind recruitment, which removes information, such names or gender, to eliminate bias judgments.
Other cognitive biases in the workplace include anchoring bias, when we rely on an initial piece of information that anchors the viewpoint — such as thinking that a person would be good at a role because they have worked for someone successful. It's the other person's competence we're seeing that unconsciously biases us more favourably towards a candidate.
There's also the bandwagon effect, where we go with a perspective that's popular among peers or on social media, rather than thinking of the issue from a fresh perspective.
"It's absolutely fascinating to consider and a real challenge to the way we conduct ourselves," says Sills.
As Mark Twain once said: "It ain't what you know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."