What is Unconscious Bias and How Can We Combat It?

What is Unconscious Bias


Unconscious Bias refers to learned societal stereotypes about certain groups of people, that individuals conceive outside of their own conscious awareness.

Unconscious Bias is dangerous within the workplace because it can impact our decision making without us even being aware, as there is a direct link between our unconscious thoughts and our actions.

Unconscious Bias can lead to favouring a person because they are similar to you, or express similar values to you. This could include having a similar background, upbringing, or being from the same ethnic group, religion or race. It could also relate to something more superficial, such as the way a person dresses, how attractive they are, their accent or even the words they choose.

As this bias is unconscious, we’re not aware that we are involuntarily giving preferential treatment to people, therefore it can be difficult to eradicate. Albeit, there are certain tools businesses can implement in order to combat and reduce unconscious bias and discrimination.

Unconscious bias can affect recruitment, promotion opportunities, and performance management – which all impact Human Resources. HR professionals need to be aware of the effects of unconscious bias and ensure they are implementing processes to avoid unconscious discrimination.

Unconscious Bias causes a significant hindrance in striving to create a truly diverse and inclusive workplace.


How Unconscious Bias works


A wealth of research exists that confirms that we as human all have biases—some that we are aware of and on some level know about, but many others that are implicit.

An example of unconscious bias, would be if a HR Manager was recruiting for a new role and came across a CV where the candidate attended the same university or studied the same degree as them. This may unconsciously cause the HR Manager to be more supportive of, or favour this candidate, as they feel as though they can relate to them.

Another example is referred to as the halo effect, which is a phenomenon whereby we assume because a person does or is good at A, they must be do/be good at B.

We make a judgment about a person, usually based on a first impression, and we make an unconscious and unjustified connection to another trait. For example, during a performance appraisal, a manager may very well give an employee a higher performance rating if they perceive the employee as very enthusiastic and positive. If they believe their work shows enthusiasm, regardless of whether they lack the knowledge and ability to perform their job to the best of their ability, they may still rate them higher than they should. They believe that trait A (enthusiasm and positivity towards work) means that they do B well (their job, regardless of their ability).

Ultimately, once we have established a bias, we ignore information that doesn’t support our bias and focus on information that does. This is how unconscious bias affects our decision making.


How do we combat it?


As humans, we use our past experiences and knowledge to speed up the decision-making process and be more efficient. This is where unconscious bias comes into effect, as this causes us to make snap second unjustified, judgements.

Below are a few actionable steps businesses can take in order to reduce Unconscious Bias:


  • Undertake or conduct training – particularly for HR and Management

In order to begin to combat unconscious bias, you first need to be aware of what it is and learn how to identify it. The HR department can either do their own research and complete training themselves to then feedback to the organisation or create a training module. Alternatively, the company could hire a professional to provide training to the whole business.


  • Take your time when making important decisions and justify the logic behind those decisions

The act of writing down and justifying why you have come to a certain decision will give insight into whether the decision has been made based on logic or bias. This will also help you identify whether the halo effect is affecting your judgement.

“First, by realizing and accepting that we all have bias, we can learn to watch for it in ourselves and help others who work with us to do the same.” – Harvard Business Review


  • Implement procedures and tools that can prevent unconscious bias

Creating a framework that is to be followed when undertaking processes like recruitment and determining promotions, can reduce the impact of unconscious bias. An example of this could be creating an agreed upon criteria before searching for a candidate or even employing the use of psychometric testing. Another method is to simply take your time to question your first impressions. Google has also created an Unbiased Hiring Checklistwhich is worth reading.

Furthermore, AI tools are also being utilising to reduce the impact of unconscious bias. They can automatically sort through CVs and identify the most suitable candidates based on specific data points. AI tools can ignore demographic information such as gender, age, race – they can even ignore information on postcodes or names of schools.


What can your business do to decrease the presence of unconscious bias in your organisation?


Author: Melanie Beckham

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