Last reviewed 18 June 2020

Understanding the threat of unconscious bias, and the situations in which it can arise in the workplace, is crucial to both encouraging and maintaining diversity and inclusion in a workforce. The significant issue with this form of bias is that perpetrators may not realise they are acting the way they are due to a personal view, or prejudice, that is influencing their conduct. Only by understanding what it is, preparing for it, and taking steps to manage it, can employers work towards a more diverse company and avoid issues of unfair treatment and discrimination arising.

This Guide sets out the main issues to keep in mind when considering unconscious bias. It covers the following questions.

  • What is unconscious bias?

  • What are the different forms of unconscious bias?

  • What are the risks of unconscious bias for employers?

  • How do employers prevent unconscious bias in recruitment?

  • How do employers prevent unconscious bias in promotion?

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is when someone forms a quick opinion about a situation or individual, without necessarily being aware that they have formed the opinion. 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. While most companies will have procedures in place to prevent employees not having equal opportunities due to their characteristics, they may not take into account a subconscious bias of this nature.

Biases can arise due to a number of characteristics, some of which may not be related to discrimination. However, in situations where this bias can be attributed to someone’s protected characteristic, such as their race, age, gender or sexual orientation, employers may face 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.

What are the different forms of unconscious bias?

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

Affinity bias

A preference for individuals who share the same characteristics, life experiences, personal and cultural values or social background. For example, 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.

Halo effect

Placing too much significance on a particularly great feature about an individual, while excluding other important factors. For example, believing that someone in an office environment who dresses conservatively is more likely to do well purely on the basis of how they dress.

Horns effect

Placing too much significance on an individual’s negative trait. 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.

Attribution bias

Evaluating an individual’s behaviour and attributing it to something personal about them. For example, a job applicant doesn’t smile at the interviewer when they are introduced to them. This is attributed to them being unfriendly and unwilling to impress. Instead, they may simply have been nervous, meaning that they forgot to smile?

Beauty bias

Treating individuals too harshly or too favourably depending on their appearance. For example, a manager decides that someone isn’t the right fit for an organisation because they don’t make enough effort with their appearance. Or possibly because they make “too much” effort.

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.

Conformity bias

Where an individual’s views are swayed too much by other people. For example, a group of four is making a decision over who to promote to a managerial position. Three of the group do not think a particular candidate should be offered the role but one has seen potential and, if alone, would offer the role. However, they want to be seen to conform and so agree that the role should not be offered.

Contrast effect

Where individuals compare the second thing with the first thing, resulting in a skewed opinion of the overall picture. For example, the first CV a manager looks at illustrates, on paper, the perfect candidate. The second candidate is viewed less favourably because it doesn’t list all of the qualifications of the first CV, even though all the required qualifications are present. The manager should consider whether each candidate, on its own merits, is capable of doing the job.

Confirmation bias

Where individuals primarily search for evidence that backs up their opinions rather than looking at the whole picture objectively. For example, a job applicant is 10 minutes late for an interview and so it is assumed that they lack organisational skills. Throughout the interview, the interviewer selectively focuses on anything that backs up this idea. For instance, the interviewer focuses on the fact that their CV lacks examples of self-managed projects.

Accent bias

Where individuals are drawn to certain accents over others and allow them to frame opinions of people. For example, accents in the UK can vary dramatically from one place to the next, such as Manchester and Liverpool. Historically, roles have been given to some people over others as they sounded “posher”.

What are the risks of unconscious bias for employers?

Allowing unconscious bias to exist can be detrimental to an employer, affecting recruitment and promotion decisions as well as overall workplace morale. For employers, recruiting the right individual can be 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.

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, eg all single, white males from middle class backgrounds. This can be a considerable barrier in creating equal opportunity in a workplace. As stated already, 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.

How do employers prevent unconscious bias in recruitment?

When conducting a recruitment exercise, employers should consider some of the following options.

“Blind” recruitment

Implementing blind recruitment is where employers remove candidates’ personal characteristics from job applications in order to purely focus on their ability to conduct the role. Reviewing job applications and CVs to decide who to invite to an interview can be a difficult task at the best of times; however, employers must be careful not to allow unconscious bias to impact who is chosen for the interview stage.

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.

Omit personal interview questions

Unconscious bias can also occur during the interview itself and employers should take care not to ask any interview questions which relate to protected characteristics, such as race, sexuality or marital status. The information gleaned from these questions could unknowingly influence decision-making and lead to claims of discrimination if the individual is not offered the job.

Use multiple interviewers

Additionally, it is advisable to have multiple interviewers present, preferably from a diverse range of backgrounds, to ensure hiring decisions are not dominated by one person’s opinion and guard against gender bias.

How do employers prevent unconscious bias in promotion?

When deciding on an internal promotion, employers should consider the following.

Grade staff fairly

Promotions and bonuses are other instances where employers may accidently fall foul of unconscious bias, with many commentators regularly attributing this to the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in senior roles.

To avoid this taking place, employers should set clear and fair targets for progression, perhaps by introducing designated job bands, which will allow them to determine without dispute when an employee is performing to a level that is deserving of promotion.

Discount personal relationships

Employees in the same positions should always be graded and monitored in the same way, with any major decisions on staff bonuses being a collective one between managers and HR personnel to reduce the chance of bias.

Note

For further information and advice on anything discussed above, please contact the HR department.