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What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias can influence decisions in recruitment, promotion and performance management, it can even be discriminatory when the unconscious bias relates to a protected characteristic. But what exactly is unconscious bias and how can we overcome it in the workplace?

Unconscious bias occurs when people favour others who look like them and/or share their values. For example, a person may be drawn to someone with a similar educational background, from the same area, or who is the same colour or ethnicity as them.

A manager who didn’t do well at school, be supportive of an employee who left school without qualifications, because subconsciously, they are reminded of their younger self. The same can be true of a manager who is educated to degree level, favouring employees who have also been to university. This is known as affinity bias, because they feel an affinity with the person as they have similar life experiences.

Another form of unconscious bias is known as the halo effect, this is where a positive trait is transferred onto a person without anything really being known them. For example, those who dress smartly are often seen as being more capable in an office environment, based purely on how they present themselves.

Behaviour which reinforces the bias is noticed whilst behaviour which does not is ignored. This is how decisions based on unconscious bias are justified.

Everyone has their own unconscious biases, the brain receives information all the time from our own experiences and what we read, hear or see in the media and from others. The brain uses shortcuts to speed up decision making and unconscious bias is a by-product of this. There are times when this sort of quick decision making is useful, for example if faced with a dangerous situation, however it is not a good way to make decisions when dealing with recruiting or promoting staff.

As the name would suggest, unconscious bias is natural and unintended but it can affect decisions, however it can be mitigated. Unconscious bias at work can influence decisions in recruitment, promotion, staff development and recognition and can lead to a less diverse workforce. Employers can overlook talented workers and instead favour those who share their own characteristics or views.

Where unconscious bias is against a protected characteristic, it can be discriminatory. For example, if during a recruitment process an employer ignores the skills and experience of a candidate who is a different race than them and appoints another candidate who is the same race, this could be discriminatory.

Conscious thoughts are controlled and rational, unconscious thoughts can be based on stereotypes and prejudices that we may not even realise we have. For example, stereotypes surrounding tattoos may subconsciously suggest a person is less likely to conform and follow rules, whilst stereotypes around mothers may lead to unconscious bias against women who apply for a role which involves regular travel away from home.

Stress or tiredness may increase the likelihood of decisions based on unconscious bias.

How to overcome unconscious bias in the workplace

· Be aware of unconscious bias.

· Don't rush decisions, take your time and consider issues properly.

· Justify decisions by evidence and record the reasons for your decisions, such as during a recruitment exercise.

· Try to work with a wider range of people and get to know them as individuals, this might include working with different teams or colleagues based in a different location.

· Focus on the positive behaviour of people and not negative stereotypes.

· Employers should implement policies and procedures which limit the influence of individual characteristics and preferences.

Name-blind recruitment

Name-blind recruitment is when an employer removes information such as name, gender and age from their application form before it's shared with the person carrying out the recruitment. This does help to overcome possible discrimination or unconscious bias and promote diversity in the workforce. Research has shown that a person's name can affect their success within the recruitment process.

Removing certain information that could unintentionally bias a manager can give under-represented groups the confidence that their application will be fairly considered.


Unconscious biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional and deeply ingrained and it is clear that these biases do subconsciously influence our behaviour.

Many organisations are now investing in unconscious bias training programmes, designed to expose people to their own unconscious biases and provide the tools to adjust automatic patterns of thinking and ultimately eliminate discriminatory behaviour. It’s really important for all organisations to train managers on how they can recognise and overcome their own unconscious biases.

Although it may not be possible to eliminate unconscious bias completely, training may go some way towards mitigating its effects and help to make our workplaces fairer, less discriminatory and much more diverse. All of which will improve performance, retention rates and increase profitability.


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