Recognising and Overcoming Unconscious Bias

Once, when I was a child, my father explained to us that heʼd been refused a job purely because of his ethnicity. He reported this without any animosity and only a hint of disappointment. Prejudice, discrimination, conscious and unconscious bias were merely accepted facts of life in those days.

Today, things may have changed — if only that these things are now overtly, and rightly, discouraged in our society.

Yet displaying bias is not just typically human, itʼs a trait that seems to be ‘hard-wiredʼ into the human psyche. So, recognising and then overcoming it takes some effort — but the results, for all concerned, are well worthwhile.

Unconscious bias happens — and itʼs present in each and every one of us. Itʼs a by-product of all the information that our brains receive. That information comes from everything we experience; everything we read; everything we do; what others say and do to us, and so on.

Complex and Wonderful

Our brains are complex and wonderful. Among other things, they use shortcuts to speed up decision-making. Unconscious bias is a by-product of this process.

This quick decision making can be useful — when weʼre in a dangerous situation and delays could have fatal consequences, for example. However, such situations — especially in modern societyʼs corporate life — are rare. Moreover, our rational minds know that making rash, uninformed and ill-considered decisions have unfortunate and adverse consequences.

This is especially true when managing peopleʼs performance, as well as when recruiting or promoting staff. So, unconscious bias is something that everyone — but, particularly, line managers and HR professionals – should guard against. Although unconscious bias is natural and unintended, it will adversely affect your decisions. The good news is that its presence can be recognised and its effects negated.

Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias happens when people favour others who look, speak or act like them and/or share their values. You may be drawn to someone with a similar educational background, from the same area as you, whoʼs the same colour or ethnicity as you and/or shares your views.

When it comes to employing and promoting others at work, managers can easily develop preferences for team members who come from a similar background to them or who ‘remind them of a younger version of themselvesʼ. This is called ‘affinity biasʼ, because the manager feels an affinity with the person because they have — or think they have – similar life experiences.

Another form of unconscious bias is known as ‘the halo effectʼ. This involves a positive character or skill trait being imputed to a person without having any evidence of this trait. For example, based purely on their attire, those who dress conservatively could be seen as more capable in an office environment, or those who wear ‘posh clothesʼ and/or ‘speak poshʼ could be thought of as candidates for promotion.

Once these unconscious biases have come into effect, any subsequent behaviour that reinforces the bias is noticed but any behaviour that doesnʼt support the bias is ignored. This is how people making decisions based on unconscious bias justify their views – and also justify the consequences that follow as they act on those views.


If unconscious bias operates within a work context, it leads to a less diverse workforce.

Moreover, talented workers can easily be overlooked and discouraged from exhibiting their talents to the organisationʼs benefit. Instead, while these talented people are side-lined — and, so, are encouraged to leave — managers favour those who, they believe, share their own characteristics, views, preferences and prejudices.

Allowing unconscious bias to influence our decisions is discriminatory when it relates to a ‘protected characteristicʼ. For example, if, during the recruitment process, an employer ignores the skills and experience of a candidate whoʼs of a different race to the employer and, instead, appoints another candidate whoʼs of the same race as the employer, this may be discriminatory.

Things to Fight Unconscious Bias

Here are ten things to bear in mind to help you to overcome unconscious bias in your organisation:

  1. Be aware that unconscious bias exists and is always trying to manifest itself, in the name of perceived (but incomplete) evidence, efficiency, effectiveness – and expediency.
  2. Stress and/or tiredness tends to increase the likelihood of our decisions being based on unconscious bias. So, try never to take decisions when youʼre stressed and/or tired — and, if you do, be aware that your decisions at these times can easily be influenced by unconscious bias.
  3. Don’t rush decisions. Rather, take your time and consider issues carefully, rationally and as objectively as possible.
  4. Justify decisions with hard evidence and record the reasons for your decisions.
  5. 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.
  6. Focus on the positive behaviour of people – and not on negative stereotypes.
  7. Implement policies and procedures which limit the influence of individual characteristics and preferences.
  8. Use name-blind recruitment. This involves removing information such as a job applicantʼs name, gender, and age from their application form before it’s shared with the person carrying out the recruitment. This should help to overcome possible discrimination or unconscious bias and promote diversity in the workforce. Research has shown that a person’s name can affect their success within the recruitment process.
  9. Remove any — and all – information that could unintentionally bias a decision-maker. This can help a member of an under-represented group to have confidence that their application will be fairly considered.
  10. Train managers in your organisation in the techniques that enable them to recognise, and overcome, their own unconscious bias.

In addition, if youʼre a leader, manager and/or HR professional, you could benefit from Engage in Learningʼs e-learning materials on recognising and overcoming unconscious bias. In particular, Engage in Learningʼs ‘Unconscious Bias for the front lineʼ course focuses on helping people who hire workers or make other HR-related decisions.


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