Last reviewed 26 March 2021

Opeyemi Ogundeji, researcher and employment law writer at Croner-i, explores what unconscious bias is and how, if unaddressed, it could impact businesses.

Unconscious bias in the workplace is when a person, or people, who work within an organisation form a biased opinion about a situation or individual without necessarily being aware of it. For example, a person may instantly make a judgment about someone due to their appearance, which can therefore impact upon their opinion of this individual overall.

Unconscious bias can occur in all areas of life, but in a workplace context, it can affect who is recruited, who is promoted, and who receives certain opportunities at work. Whilst most businesses will have procedures in place to prevent employees from not having equal opportunities due to their characteristics, they may not take into account a subconscious bias of this nature.

The different forms of unconscious bias

Biases can arise due to a number of characteristics. At times, it can be attributed to someone’s protected characteristic — such as their race, age, gender, or sexual orientation — and thus opens employers up to costly discrimination claims. For example, a person’s appearance, background, or personality could be linked to a protected characteristic, such as their race or gender.

There are many forms of unconscious bias, which include the following:

Halo effect

Placing too much significance on a particularly great feature about an individual, whilst excluding other important factors. A manager interviews someone who went to the same university at the same time as them and prefers them to people who went to different universities, even though their experience in the job doesn’t match that of other candidates.

Horns effect

Placing too much significant on an individual’s negative trait. For example, a job candidate made flippant comments about a politician that the interviewer doesn’t agree with, and the interviewer allows that to influence their decision.

Gender Bias

Displaying a preference for one gender over another. For example, a male interviewer prefers to choose a male candidate for a role that is physically demanding, thinking that a male will be able to cope with the demands of the job better. The existence of gender bias is often attributed to the existing gender pay gap, with suggestions that women are overlooked for certain “top” roles due to certain perceptions, creating a disparity in average pay.

Accent bias

Where individuals are drawn to certain accents over others and allow them to frame opinions of people. For example, someone may be given a job over others because the way they sound is thought to be more favourable. Although accents in the UK can vary regionally (like the difference between the Mancunian and Scouse accents), accent bias can also be extended towards those with Asian, African/Caribbean, and Eastern European accents.

Name bias

A 2019 study, conducted by employment law solicitors Slater and Gordon, shows that a number of Black, Asian and others considered to be “minority ethnic” employees have directly, or indirectly, been told to use more “western” sounding names in the workplace. Taking responses from 1000 of such employees, 34% of them admitted to abandoning their birth name on their CV, or in the workplace, at least once in their career.

Those who had agreed to change their names cited several motivating factors, including fear of judgment, discrimination, or that failing to do so would have an adverse impact on their career progression.

The risks of unconscious bias

Allowing unconscious bias to exist can be detrimental to businesses. It could affect recruitment and promotion decisions as well as overall workplace morale. Recruiting the right individual can be difficult and it is often unproductive when unconscious bias factors come to play, potentially causing the business to miss out on the best candidate. The same can be said for internal promotions. Decision makers should be careful not to let outside factors influence who they believe to be the best person for the job; instead, a fair procedure should be used, utilising the impartiality of technology where appropriate.

A diverse workforce is often seen as a sign of an inclusive and forward-thinking employer. That said, unconscious bias can result in employers regularly hiring a certain “type” of individual — eg white males from middle class backgrounds. This can be a considerable barrier in creating equal opportunity in a workplace and, as stated above, in severe cases employers can face claims of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 if acts of unconscious bias can be linked to a protected characteristic.

It is also important not to 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.

To avoid this, employers should:

  • implement blind recruitment

  • omit personal interview questions from application forms — eg names, ethnicity, gender, etc

  • use multiple interviewers

  • grade staff fairly for roles or promotions

  • discount personal relationships or nepotism

  • implement unconscious bias awareness and training.

Unconscious bias training

Unconscious bias training can help employers to raise awareness of this issue amongst all staff and managers. Due to this type of bias being “unconscious”, it is argued that one of the best ways to tackle it is to shed light on it and, in so doing, employees will be more likely to actively prevent it from occurring.

It can also help employers to reduce the number of discrimination claims brought against them and contribute towards enforcing equality and inclusion policies.

However, it has been argued that unconscious bias training alone will not stop discrimination. Data released by the Guardian shows that whilst 81% of businesses conduct unconscious bias training, employers still believe that it cannot, on its own, “ensure a fair, consistent, and effective process”.

Former KPMG Partner, Bill Michael, has gone further to describe unconscious bias training as “complete and utter [rubbish]”. He went on to say that “[t]here is no such thing as unconscious bias…[b]ecause after every single unconscious bias training that has ever been done, nothing’s ever improved”.

To add fuel to the debate, the Government has recently ordered its departments to scrap unconscious bias training for its civil servants due to evidence that the training is ineffective. A Cabinet Secretary has since encouraged public sector businesses to do the same. “The civil service will… [now seek to] integrate principles for inclusion and diversity into mainstream core training and leadership modules in a manner which facilitates positive behaviour change.” The details of this are yet to be released, however.

HR considerations

It seems, from a HR standpoint, that whilst ridding the workplace of unconscious bias should be a priority, it should be approached methodically and in a way that works best for individual businesses.

Biases derive from stereotypes which are learned both outside the workplace and within it, so the way it needs to be addressed is understandably not as simply as it seems. Employers should note that the Government’s move to scrap unconscious bias training has in no way been legally extended to all businesses. It is therefore advised that employers examine the training that they offer and assess its effectiveness, coupling this with other actions such as have already been mentioned — eg blind recruitment and implementing fair procedures for promoting staff.

If employers pay closer attention to how the actions they take against unconscious bias is being received by staff, it may enable them to find out what works and what doesn’t, ultimately putting them in a better position to find alternative, more effective, solutions.