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Unconscious bias and being 'the person your dog thinks you are'

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Diversity and inclusion
Kevin Oliver (head shot)
Kevin Oliver

This ‘unconscious bias’ thing. What is it, exactly?

Well, I suppose an easy explanation is that, in prehistory, if a sabre-toothed tiger ate your friend then there was a better than even chance it would do the same to you. So you had to be wary of the tiger. It was a personal safety thing.

Down the generations, this warning eventually gets encoded into our DNA, so it becomes a type of defence mechanism. There are no sabre-toothed tigers now, but we still have this mechanism in our subconscious. This is what unconscious bias is.

We all constantly make judgements about people and situations based solely on what we have heard or read, rather than personal experience. And if someone we trust says something, then it must be true. Mustn’t it?

But what if it isn’t?

If you’ve read my previous blogs, or if you know me personally, then you’ll know that I’m big on ‘fairness’. Treat people as the individuals that they are, and give them the things they need in order to thrive. We’re all minorities of one. Just because you happen to belong to a particular community or group it doesn’t logically follow that you are the same as other community members.

React to what is in front of you, not what you think is in front of you.

It’s often said that people don’t always remember what you say, but they’ll always remember how you make them feel. I’d urge you to remember this. It’s important.

I’d illustrate this with some of my work with the DWP Disability Engagement Group. It deals with how people feel, and how much they feel a part of the team. It’s all too easy to see ‘people with issues’ in terms of what they can’t do, rather than seeing their different abilities as a positive. The wheelchair or stick is seen before the person. And if you can’t see the issue, then unconscious bias kicks in again and ‘if I can’t see it, it’s not there’ rules the roost. Don’t see people on your terms – see them on their terms.

Again, react to what is in front of you, not what you think is in front of you.

Make everyone you work with feel important and valued.

Dogs don’t get hung up with history, and live in the now. They don’t judge you. They think you’re awesome.

Be the person that your dog thinks you are!

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  1. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Hi Kevin,

    Thank you for a very interesting blog. I very much commend the work that you and your colleagues to ensure equality and inclusion.

    I would very much agree with your response to Haley about the perception of some who still only associated those who are in a wheelchair as having a disability.

    One of the aims of the FCO Staff Association the Wellbeing Network has been to increase awareness and understanding about the non visible disabilities that people might have such as mental Health issues! I have to say that I was shocked when I discovered the level of discrimination that colleagues were experiencing from Managers and colleagues.

    I have also unfortunately observed colleagues from the BAME and LGBT+ who have also experienced such unacceptable behaviour and discrimination.

    Fortunately, the Staff Associations and the Allies are making a significant difference and in particular challenging such bias.

  2. Comment by Paul Fitzgerald posted on

    Hi Kevin

    As the Equality lead for East Midlands and the East of England Ambulance Service, your article is both spot on but also thought provoking. I love the dog link but what about the horses! My little horse Adara would be miffed alongside the cats!

  3. Comment by Diane Reddell posted on

    Hi Kevin

    You have written a really good blog. It encourages people to challenge their viewpoints.

  4. Comment by Charlotte Smith posted on

    I object to the unconscious bias in this article. It stated Be the person that your dog thinks you are. What about the cats!!!!!! My cat would be most miffed if I thought she was a dog!!! We must stand up for cat rights! 😉

    All joking apart and on a more serious note, as someone who has a number of hidden disabilities, I know all to well how unconscious bias affects people. I once attended a job interview outside the civil service and it was clear they, the interviewers, had an unconscious bias towards me. Happened to me twice. Was viewed and treated as being thick because of my disabilities and I turned the tables on them at the interview and showed that I was far from thick and a very capable person indeed. and I put in a formal complaint.

    The point being is that it did not reflect well on the company in question.

    I am all for raising awareness on unconscious bias and the pitfalls. And for Cat Rights 😉

    • Replies to Charlotte Smith>

      Comment by Kevin Oliver posted on

      Hi Charlotte,

      Of course every animal has the right to self identify and to be valued on their own terms. I'd urge you to look up "Kattensteot" for an extreme example of Unconscious Bias towards Felines.

      The point with Unconscious Bias is that we can only deal with it if we effectively turn it into a Conscious Bias and then learn how to deal with it. Everyone should be valued for the person that they are, and the contribution they could make if given the conditions that they need to thrive.

      Glad you thought the Blog has value, and hope you read others (not just mine) at some point.

      • Replies to Kevin Oliver>

        Comment by Charlotte Smith posted on

        Hello Kevin

        I am a regular contributor to a wide range of blog posts on the Civil Service blog. I am also very active in the local LEOO network in my workplace and I am aware of a wide range of diversity issues. Thank you for asking.

      • Replies to Kevin Oliver>

        Comment by KD posted on

        It's a fact that the Service has spent massive sums of public money in compulsory "diversity" training, so why has this not worked?

        Maybe because the majority of discrimination, bullying and harassment is totally conscious and practised from the top down.

        Maybe because our 'policies and procedures' are created by a minority of "senior" employees, statistically more likely to be white men, from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

        Maybe it's because challenging that minority view, is treated as dangerous defiance, rather than legitimate "diversity" of opinion.
        Is it really an "unconscious" decision to choose to succumb to the will of a powerful minority - than to do the right thing ?

        Anyone with a sense of their surroundings will be aware of discriminatory practices and their contribution to them - whether using 'procedures' to dulicitously bully victims or because they are very conscious that "rocking the boat" will have negative consequences for them.

        The excuse that bigotry in a workplace is all down to individual "unconscious bias" is woefully inadequate and feeds the beast it seeks to neutralise.
        So Please - let's stop blaming ourselves and start to really adapt the environment of work to fit the diversity of life that comprises our Civil Service population - or else be in no doubt that other more adaptive organisations will replace

  5. Comment by Steven posted on

  6. Comment by Haley Ryan posted on

    I love this article and as someone who is slightly less able bodied than most I can find it difficult at times. I use my blue badge and because you don't see a visible disability people judge, what they don't see is the years of hard work it has taken to hide the fact that I suffer from extreme fatigue and severe joint pain caused by Lupus. It's very hard not to judge them for judging me but your article helps with that - the judgement is not necessarily something that is easily controlled so we just have to work at becoming better, more compassionate people and hopefully this mechanism will become less of an issue in future.

    • Replies to Haley Ryan>

      Comment by Kevin Oliver posted on

      Hi Haley,

      Unfortunately some people still think you need to be in a wheelchair to have mobility problems. Things are changing, but the pace of change sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. It's not helped by people thinking that the symbol for disability is someone in a wheelchair. It isn't, and never was. it's a diagram of a person being supported. If anyone designed a wheelchair that looks like the disability sign you wouldn't be able to turn the wheels because they'd be at shoulder height to the person sitting in it.
      I'm pleased that you found value in the blog.

      • Replies to Kevin Oliver>

        Comment by Emma Blair posted on

        Really enjoyed reading this - thanks for taking the time to write.
        I think you make a very good point about the symbol, I’d never thought of that before.