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Unconscious bias

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.

How to overcome unconscious bias

  • Be aware of unconscious bias.
  • Don't rush decisions rather take your time and consider issues properly.
  • Justify decisions by evidence and record the reasons for your decisions, for example during a recruitment exercise.
  • Try to work with a wider range of people and get to know them as individuals. This could 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.