The row after the laughter … How to deal with unconscious racial bias in the workplace.

The video of Professor Robert Kelly being interrupted by his two young (and adorable) children, whilst he was giving a live interview to the BBC, had millions of people roaring with laughter, writes Daniela Cohen, an associate in the Sheridans Employment and Business Immigration Group.  

It was quite simply hilarious to watch these two children make their debut appearance on TV in such an oblivious manner. The hilarity was only elevated with their frantic mother in the background trying to retrieve the duo as inconspicuously as possible.

racial bias, employment law, professor kelly, race discrimination
Daniela Cohen, an associate in the Sheridans Employment and Business Immigration Group.

This comedy gold moment naturally went viral. The video was posted and shared on traditional and social media outlets.  It was welcome light relief in what can only be described as pretty unpredictable times.

However the discussion that followed sparked a very interesting debate.  What was disturbing about the unsolicited commentary was the overwhelming assumption that the lady in the video was the nanny.  The leading lady was in fact Professor Kelly’s wife, Jung-a Kim.

The fact that Jung-a Kim was repeatedly described as the nanny, presumably as a result of pure assumption, suggests that racial stereotypes regarding the servient roles of Asian women appear to be alive and well. It does ponder the question whether a Caucasian woman in the same scenario would have had the same assumption made of her.  In all likelihood, that would not be the case.

While it is probably true that any offence caused would have been unwitting, therein lies the issue.  How do we tackle bias when people are not even aware of it on a conscious level. Even well-meaning individuals may allow unconscious bias to cloud their judgement as well as their views and opinions of others. Stereotypes and prejudice can be so deep rooted that they form part of what an individual considers to be normal and consequently correct and acceptable. Attempting to deal with bias at this level feels like an impossible task.

Statutory protections

Statutory protections may not be the whole solution but they are an important part of corrective development. Legislation designed to eliminate discrimination, forces individuals to monitor and become more aware of their own decision making processes. The hope is that individuals with protected characteristics do not suffer detriment and will not be treated differently as a result of someone else’s perceptions of their goals and capabilities.

It generally falls upon HR and legal professionals to provide guidance to their staff and/or client base to ensure that the organisations they work for do not fall foul of discrimination law.  Given that the pigeon-holing of individuals often occurs on a sub-conscious level, how can this goal be achieved?

It is not easy and unsurprisingly very difficult to police.  However, there are some practical measures that can be implemented, which may assist in negating the effects of unconscious bias and prejudice.

Education and re-education

Diversity training is a useful tool. Rather than just a tick box exercise, it can bring these issues to the surface. Consequently it plays a significant part in reminding and encouraging individuals to look beyond stereotypes they may hold. Rolling out annual sessions on a mandatory basis reinforces the importance of equal opportunities.


One should not underestimate how the culture of an organisation can influence the thinking of individuals even on a sub-conscious level.  To that end, creating an open and meritocratic workplace will hopefully permeate across all staff and contribute towards negating prejudice. A key part in forming this culture will be to ensure that any deviation from accepted practice  is not tolerated. It is vital that this is applied at all levels of seniority and individuals are disciplined appropriately.


To prevent subjectivity (which could be tainted by bias) to govern decisions regrading on-boarding and progression, it is helpful to put procedures and boundaries in place. These may include requiring all interviewees to be asked the same questions, keeping notes on why decisions have been reached and by requiring moderation in the form of at least two decision makers.  Bureaucracy may not be welcomed with open arms. However, by encouraging individuals to articulate their decisions and necessitating moderation, an organisation will make great strides in compelling objectivity.

Collectively these measures can be influential in driving individuals to look beyond any unconscious bias and prejudice. If you are able to assess individuals purely on merit and not allow any other factor to sway decisions regarding recruitment or progression, surely this can only be a step forward both morally and commercially. The suggested measures are by no means fool proof and require careful monitoring but they can help focus individuals attentions and quiet stereotypes, particularly the unconsciously held beliefs.



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