The Dangers of Unconscious Bias

By Andrew Willis
21 Oct 2020

The vast majority of companies in the country will know about discrimination and will actively take steps to avoid it. Managers will, in general, want to avoid forming assumptions about an individual due to a certain characteristic such as their race, personality or where they come from. The trouble is, sometimes these assumptions can be made even when it is not the intention of the people making them.

Alexandra Wilson

This was particularly shown in a recent situation that arose with a barrister, Alexandra Wilson, who posted on twitter how she was misidentified numerous times whilst she went about her daily role at court due to her skin colour. In the course of one day, she was mistaken for a defendant and a journalist and then later loudly told to leave the court by a clerk whilst being asked if she was represented. When the clerk was informed that she was actually a barrister, they simply responded with ‘OK’ and offered no apology at all.

Outlining she was ‘absolutely exhausted’, Wilson explained she was going public with her experiences as ‘so many people like [her] seem to experience the same thing’. Whilst her experiences are being investigated by the court, they do unfortunately highlight an issue that many people face in the modern world; unconscious bias.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is when you form a quick opinion about a situation or individual, without necessarily being aware of it. It can occur in all areas of life but in a workplace context, unconscious bias can affect who is recruited, or who is promoted. If left unchecked, it can impact upon who gets training and opportunities to develop and who is looked over. It can even influence a manager’s response to issues with conduct or employee capability.

There are many different forms of this type of bias. Whilst it can arise due to characteristics such as race, gender or sexual orientation, it can also be more subtle. Maybe you take a liking to someone as they are from the same town you are, or vice versa. Maybe you like someone because of the way they talk, or automatically assume someone will not be a strong candidate due to their accent. These assumptions, if left to fester, can be dangerous and have a seriously strong impact on your decision making process.

The impact of unconscious bias

Allowing unconscious bias to exist can be detrimental to an employer, affecting recruitment and promotion decisions as well as overall workplace morale. We all know that recruiting the right individual is difficult enough, without factoring in the potential that unconscious bias could cause employers to miss out on the best candidate.

The same can be said for internal promotions and decision makers should be careful not to let outside factors influence who is the best person for the job. After all, a diverse workforce is often seen as a sign of an inclusive and forward-thinking employer, however unconscious bias can result in employers regularly hiring a certain ‘type’ of individual e.g. all single, white males from middle class backgrounds.

It is also important not the underestimate the impact perceived unconscious bias can have on employee morale. Trust is an essential part of the employment relationship and employees who do not trust their employer to make decisions fairly are unlikely to contribute effectively.  Workplace inequality remains a key issue and the last thing an employer wants is bad press as a result of this.

How to avoid unconscious bias

Reviewing job applications and CVs to decide who to invite to an interview can be a difficult task at the best of times, however you must be careful not to allow unconscious bias to impact who is chosen for the interview stage, whether for a new job or for a promotion.

Studies have suggested that applicants from certain groups are less likely to be asked to an interview because of the unconscious bias that may be associated with their names. To prevent this, employers should consider removing names and other identifying characteristics from applications so this cannot be factored into decision making.

To undertake blind recruitment, you should first identify how you intend to remove a candidate’s gender from their application. Options to consider include:

  • asking other members of staff to do this, such as HR, although the practice could be time consuming and take them away from other important tasks
  • utilising specialist software, such as applicant tracking system (ATS)
  • reading CVs side-by-side with names hidden, focusing more on the performance and skills mentioned within them and avoiding gender differences so it is not clear if it is a male or female applicant
  • placing personal information on a detachable page which is kept separate from the information given to decision makers.

Going forward, you should consider if your employees and management would benefit from unconscious bias training. This could be key for helping to them to identify biases they may have yet not even realise are there.

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.





Get expert views & insights delivered directly to your inbox