Unveiling the Hidden Judge: Understanding Unconscious Bias and Its Impact in the Workplace

Unveiling the Hidden Judge: Understanding Unconscious Bias and Its Impact in the Workplace

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Written by: SafeWorkforce
24th July

What is unconscious bias?

There are two main types of bias to be aware of, conscious bias and unconscious bias.  Conscious bias is usually bias that you are aware of and usually discriminates against people or groups of people.  It usually has malicious intent.  Whereas unconscious biases are beliefs and attitudes outside of a person’s awareness and control.  They may influence your actions and behaviours without you realising it.  They do not usually have any malicious intent.

Most biases are usually based on stereotypes and the most common biases are based on characteristics such as; race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, educational background.

Why does unconscious bias occur?

Over the years we have patterns and experiences that we’ve been exposed to throughout our lives and these occur over and over again.  These start to form our values, beliefs, expectations and are shaped early on in life by those closest to us, but may also be reinforced through things such as tv/films, society, educational experiences, the media etc. We pick up these patterns and start to use these as shortcuts for our own decision making and interactions. 

These patterns, assumptions, tendencies or biases help us to process information.  Some of the time, that process is helpful as we can’t rely on factual or conscious thinking all the time, as we simply don’t have the time or the cognitive capacity to do so.  The problem with unconscious bias is when the patterns that we rely on end up being cultural stereotypes; that may not be the truth and could ultimately disadvantage or be harmful to those groups affected. 

Why is it important to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace?

There are 2 key risks associated with unconscious bias:

  • When judgements and decisions are influenced by unconscious bias, we are in effect, using an incomplete and inaccurate evidence base. This will lead to poor decisions;
  • Secondly, unconscious bias has unfair and negative consequences for the subjects of this bias. This includes unfair treatment or poorer outcomes. 

This may mean that processes such as recruitment, promotions, work allocation, performance reviews and redundancies are not always be conducted in a fair or consistent manner and can lead to some groups of staff being unfairly disadvantaged in the workplace.  This may result in decisions being taken that prejudice people with a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 and affected employees may bring claims for unlawful discrimination in an employment tribunal. These claims may not only be time-consuming and costly to defend; but may lead to a finding of discrimination resulting in a substantial financial award and reputational damage.

What unconscious bias means in recruitment?

In the hiring process, unconscious bias happens when you form an opinion about candidates based solely on first impressions, or when you prefer one candidate over another simply because the first one seems like someone you’d easily hang out with them outside of work.  It’s natural to gravitate towards people you gel with and people do hire people they like best.

Even in the early hiring stages, a candidates CV, their name, or home town could influence your opinion more than you think.  In short, unconscious bias influences your decision – whether positively or negatively – using criteria irrelevant to the job. 

We tend to make assumptions based on what we think we know, based on our background, personal experiences, preferences and then we act on these assumptions.  In recruitment, often recruiters will choose candidates that they have a good feeling about but can’t explain why they want to hire that person.

Biased hiring decisions result in less diverse teams and research says that businesses perform better when they have greater ethnic and gender diversity. 

You should consider your expectations when recruiting for a role. It is not about having a "right fit" for the team but recruiting the candidate with the necessary skillset, knowledge and experience. Consider casting your net more widely than your usual recruitment channels.  Positive action measures, where permissible, may prove effective, especially where there is under-representation of a particular group.

How can you embed positive practices within your workplace?

Foster and hold further conversations about bias to cultivate a culture of proactive measures and reassurances so that employees can call out biases when they occur.  Give yourself time to deliberate when carrying out tasks for making decisions.  When you face time constraints, this pressure can create an environment in which unconscious biases can flourish. 

Widen your social network to include people with whom you might not normally socialise. This will broaden your view of the world to include other cultures and nationalities. People from the same minority groups (whether race, religion, gender, etc) commonly spend time with each other. By actively engaging with colleagues who are not part of your usual social group, you will enhance your awareness of diversity, the lived experience of others and demonstrate that you value inclusion.

If you suspect that you have a bias in relation to a certain group (either for or against), try to analyse the reasons for it;

  • Where does the bias come from and what does it mean?
  • What is your first recollection of feeling this way?
  • Was the bias triggered by a certain event, or learned from a particular person?
  • What can you do to overcome the bias?

If you embed these practices, it will help you to actively contribute to creating a workplace where diversity matters and equality concepts are treated seriously, and where different views and ways of working are valued. Support or initiate projects that promote positive images regarding diversity and inclusion.

Ensure that you keep comprehensive records of decisions and justifications and monitor for patterns that might suggest unconscious bias.

Some takeaway points and techniques for managing bias

  • Acknowledge the possibility of bias
  • Take responsibility where problems are highlighted
  • Allow sufficient time in decision making
  • Review and reflect without pressure


Need HR Support

At SafeWorkforce we’re able to offer you an outsourcing service for your Human Resource needs so that you get:

1) Specialist guidance from our experts.

2) Supporting you in becoming legal and compliant.

3) A tailored approach that suits your business.

To speak to a member of the team, get in touch on 0333 355 9140 opt.4