What is Unconscious Bias?

By Andrew Willis
22 May 2019

This issue is prevalent in a number of workplaces across the UK and is a difficult topic to pin down.

In fact, it’s easy to ignore. Or, pretend it doesn’t happen.

But it can influence major business decisions, including recruitment, performance management, and promotion.

It can even creep into your marketing and how you present yourself to prospective clients and competitors.

But before we look too closely at the impact—the how, why and when you should stop it—let’s take a look at what it is.

The different types of bias

This term refers to when people favour certain individuals (or groups) over others because they look like them, or share similar values.

Now, that’s quite vague. So it’s worth looking at the different types of unconscious bias you find in the workplace.

  • Affinity bias: Do you warm up to people like yourself? You can identify with another person on any number of levels. For example, you might relate more to people who also went to university. Or, you might relate more to someone who has the same regional accent as yourself.
  • Halo effect: Do you dismiss the poor performance or behaviour of an individual because you like them? Or hold the individual in higher regard then everyone else around them?
  • Perception bias: Do you form judgements about particular groups? Do you subscribe to certain stereotypes? Do you find it impossible to make completely objective judgements about a member of these groups?
  • Confirmation bias: Do you actively seek information that supports your beliefs regarding an individual or group? Do you dismiss information that challenges these beliefs?
  • Group Think: Do you try to fit into a particular group by mimicking the beliefs, thoughts, and judgements of other people? Do you hold back certain thoughts and opinions that are contradictory to that group’s ethos? Originating from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it causes a loss of identity among individuals and drains creativity and innovation from an organisation.

One reason unconscious bias is so hard to root out is that people often don’t even realise they’re guilty of it.

You may have it, read the list above, and still not realise that you have it.

So, let’s look at a few different ways bias can infiltrate our everyday working lives, as well as how to address and tackle it.


Unconscious bias examples in the workplace

Although few of us would admit it, bias pervades many areas of the workplace and often influences major business decisions.

There isn’t one plain example of this, there are in fact many unconscious bias examples you could draw from. One of these would be the gender pay gap.

The gap is a result of many different factors, but unconscious bias is certainly a big player. Believing women are more suited to particular roles, or prejudice in favour of men for an executive position are likely to result in a much wider pay gap overall.

But there are others, less obvious and defined.

One of these is the preference given to right-handed individuals. The early YouTube app encountered an error when 5-10% of videos were showing upside down due to an error by the company’s development team.

Another example is the filtering of names on job applications alluding to certain ethnicities.

When making a hiring decision, you shouldn’t expect a manager to say, “I can’t hire you as you might become pregnant and then I’d have to find a replacement.”

Not only is this discriminatory, but it’s also conscious bias. The manager is aware of their reasoning.

If the same thought lingered in the back of their mind however, deep in their unconscious brain, there’s a good chance it will influence their decision-making.

Even if they’re unaware of it.

This is a key example of unconscious gender bias in the workplace.

Employers can have similar thoughts with regards to age, weight, skin colour, gender, disability, sexuality, education level, accent, social status, current job title, and so on. In fact, many job ads have an unconscious bias.

Another common misconception involving bias is that hiring disabled workers is an expensive undertaking (something we address in our Mythbuster).

Don’t believe this type of bias exists? According to research by Jaluch, 67% of the British public admits to feeling uncomfortable talking to a disabled person.

A massive 80% of employers make hiring decisions relating to regional accents, and LGBT job seekers are 5% less likely to get an initial interview.

Recognising your biases is difficult, not only to identify but also to come to terms with. There are tests that can help discern unconscious bias, but you can pinpoint it with some simple self-reflection.

One of the main ways to do this is to identify and educate yourself and your employees to different types of bias.

Once you’ve identified it, however, how do you tackle it?


How to overcome unconscious bias in the workplace

Luckily, there are lots of ways to deal with the issue—especially in hiring processes where it’s most prevalent.

Name-blind recruitment is a great technique for eliminating bias. This method removes the name, gender, and age from a potential employee’s application form.

Without these factors, you can judge the recruit on their skill, experience, and applicability alone.

However, this is a method that details how to avoid unconscious bias in the workplace, not remove it.

To overcome bias, you must be aware of any you have and never rush to a decision—it’s where unconscious bias can slip in.

Always justify your decision with evidence and base it on merit.

Having more than one person conduct or sit in on the interview is a great way to eliminate any bias, especially if the group is a diverse one.

Work with a wide range of people and get to know them as individuals, not as part of a group or department.

And the holy grail—policies.

Ensure you have and effectively implement policies and procedures that limit the influence of individual characteristics and preferences.

Where you identify biases, make sure you thoroughly investigate them so people know they are accountable—this also helps identify if certain decisions were valid.

Utilise offboarding meetings and appraisals as a resource to gain information regarding any existing biases that exist in decision making.

Finally, remain vigilant, checking yourself and your workforce for any signs of issues that might creep up on your business.


Need more help?

If you believe there’s unconscious bias at your workplace, or you’d just like to ensure you avoid it, follow the steps highlighted in this article.

If you follow all of the above steps, but still feel you need further support, speak to a Croner expert on 01455 858 132.

About the Author

Andrew Willis

Andrew Willis is the senior manager of the Litigation and Employment Department and assumes additional responsibility for managing Croner’s office based telephone HR advisory teams, who specialise in employment law, HR and commercial legal advice for small & large organisations across the United Kingdom.