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Unconscious bias: what is it and how do we tackle it?

The Equality Challenge Unit states that: ‘Implicit or unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgments and assessments of people and situations without us realising. Our biases are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. We may not even be aware of these views and opinions, or be aware of their full impact and implications.’

While much has been done to bring in diversity to many aspects of our lives, including our business and professional world, there are still challenges faced by employees in the workplace. Lack of diversity in the workplace can take many forms. Sometimes, it is intentional but other times it is not. 

In the webinar 'Breaking barriers for women leaders in public finance' we asked those attending whether, in their view, they thought they had experienced unconscious bias in the workplace, 79% said yes, they had.

Women and ethnic minorities often deal with more issues in the workplace than male colleagues. Unconscious bias can be and often is, embedded in the culture of companies.  Often the problems can lie at the top of organisations - senior management may have social stereotypes about certain groups of people – sometimes this stereotyping can be conscious and deliberate. Often, however this behaviour can be outside of their control. It happens automatically and can be triggered because they are making quick judgements. Unconscious bias can, in some organisations, become so embedded that the company or individuals don’t know or understand that they are doing it. Unconscious bias is often more common than conscious prejudice.

If left unchecked, unconscious bias can work against the organisational and performance goals and while organisations may be going through the processes of showing that they are ticking many diversity boxes on paper, sometimes, the reality is very different. Often, there isn’t sufficient challenge,  especially at the top of organisations to combat unconscious bias. This can then lead to women and ethnic minorities from being treated equally.

Organisations these days usually have in place policies that are supportive of equality, however, they do not always review actual practice against the policies nor do they sufficiently challenge practices that sometimes undermine those policies. Equality in relation to recruitment has to come from the very top. Human resources and senior management should be seen to be walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

When considering employees for a promotion, it is important not to create external factors that are not related to how an employee performs their job functions. Whether this is done purposely or by an implicit assumption, it could be seen as discriminatory. For example, an employer should not assume that a female employee would not be interested in a promotion solely because she is pregnant and will not be able to work and have a family.

Assumptions like these are the ones that keep women back professionally and economically. They also contribute to gender inequality and organisations could be complicit in inadvertently encouraging inequality without meaning to.

Steps needed to overcome unconscious or implicit bias

A diverse and neutral environment is always important in recruiting potential candidates. Organisations should consider the following in tackling unconscious bias:

  • HR and recruitment policies and procedures should limit the influence of individual characteristics and preferences; 
  • organisations should take steps to understand what unconscious bias is and how it works. There needs to be an acknowledgement that unconscious bias exists and considering how people can become more aware of their own behaviours and challenge others if they see it happening;
  • educate and train staff at all levels about unconscious bias to help them assess their own behaviours and be more mindful of what it is they are doing, for example, staff are more likely to display these traits when they are feeling  tired, emotional or stressed. If they are trained to recognise this, then the next step is to leave, for example, the reviewing of CVs and candidate short-listing for another day;
  • ensure that role profiles are worded carefully so as not to discriminate against potential candidates (either internal or externally);
  • train staff to make time to take time over the recruitment process, for example, staff could look at CVs on different days and at different times of the day to test their initial reactions. Slowing down the decision-making process is key to dealing with unconscious bias;
  • ensure that decisions about recruitment can be backed up by evidence and all reasons for certain decisions are recorded;
  • consider whether CV assessment can be carried out by an independent panel of experts (who are not connected to either the organisation or applicants) who can make a judgement based purely on the job profile and attributes required for a position. This could even include omitting information that identifies gender or race;

Organisations should be aware that if left unchecked, unconscious bias can thrive when recruiting or promoting individuals. For companies to be competitive and perform well, it is important that there is diversity within the organisation.

By Sumita Shah, Regulatory Policy Manager, ICAEW


ACAS had the following to say:

‘Unconscious bias can influence decisions in recruitment, promotion and performance management. It could be discriminatory when the unconscious bias relates to a protected characteristic.

What is unconscious bias?

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 wasn't successful at school may listen to, or 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 about that person. For example those who dress conservatively are often seen as more capable in an office environment, based purely on their attire.

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 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. 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.

Key points:

  • It's natural.
  • It's unintended.
  • It can affect decisions.
  • 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 well-reasoned. Unconscious thoughts can be based on stereotypes and prejudices that we may not even realise we have. Stereotypes surrounding tattoos may subconsciously suggest a person is unlikely to conform and follow rules. Stereotypes surrounding 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.’