Exploring unconscious biases in the workplace

How are unconscious biases – based on everything from sex and race to age – affecting workers and what can we do to tackle them?

unconscious biases in the workplace


For millions of years unconscious biases have protected humans from life-threatening situations. By dividing people into categories, we were able to make quick decisions in critical situations. As we evolved, this rapid judgement helped us understand the social context we were in and how to interact with each other.

However, this simplistic way of placing people into categories has also led to the creation of stereotypes and social labelling with negative and judgemental connotations. This has resulted in prejudices and discrimination not only based on race, gender or age, but also education, hobbies, body weight and height.

Some of the main biases are: affinity or similarity bias, confirmation bias and the halo effect. In a working environment the first one relates to a tendency to prefer candidates with a similar background during the hiring process. The second one happens when people look for confirmation of a decision or opinion they have previously formed and therefore disregard contradictory signs. The halo effect is when positive perceptions of a person’s single trait carry over to how people perceive other aspects of that person. The opposite of this is called the horn effect.

How unconscious biases operate in a working environment

One area where unconscious biases can have a strong impact is in the workplace, limiting the efforts made by companies to grow and become more inclusive and diverse. Excluding employees from certain positions because of the employer’s stereotyped ideas of them can happen at different stages, from recruitment to promotions.

The Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion (Enei) has highlighted some of the biases employers should look out for in the hiring process:

  • Visual social identity: This often reinforces biases around gender, ethnicity, age and other social categories
  • Dress code: What a candidate is wearing can influence the hiring decision
  • Accent: The way someone speaks can prevail over their scholastic background and pertinent skills for the job
  • CV information: Assumptions about the candidate are made on the basis of the activities listed on their cv.

All of these aspects prevent candidates from facing a level playing field when applying to a job, when seeking a promotion and even when interacting with colleagues within a company. Although in recent years more employers have been trying to overcome unconscious biases, some worry that the pandemic has negatively impacted progress made beforehand.

The issues with unconscious bias training

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement [BLM], which gained momentum in 2020, larger numbers of employers in the US and in the UK have become more committed to addressing issues of diversity and inclusion. Even before this many had run workshops in which employees and employers were trained to spot biases and to think how to become more diverse and inclusive as a company.

In a previous interview with workingmums.co.uk, Diana Parkes, founder of Women’s Sat Nav to Success, explained why this process might not work. In her view, people attending these programmes often put up barriers to messages that are being imposed upon them. “Many men, in particular, feel alienated and threatened. This is not a formula for change,” stated Parkes.

Others also believe that one-off training sessions will not bring sustained change within companies and that they only have a short-term impact on attitudes and behaviours. Businesses might perceive them as just another box to tick,  participants may feel as if they have done their part by simply attending training or they may even lose hope that they can overcome their biases.

With the focus of BLM on action and outcomes, this has led some companies to drop these training sessions as they doubted their impact on creating real change, such as building a more diverse team or getting an increasing number of women into higher managerial positions.

Other ways of challenging unconscious biases

Experts warn, however, against dropping unconscious bias training without having anything to replace it with. They argue that using the best of the unconscious bias programmes can be a first step to raising awareness around unconscious biases, but they say there are other more concrete actions that employers can take. 

One of them would be changing the recruitment process. To avoid falling back into biases it can be useful to remove pictures and the mention of age from applications. Job adverts should also be checked for language bias towards, for instance,  white men. Also, mentoring can be helpful for underrepresented groups as people can learn through this about behaviours and whether they are appropriate or not. But, ultimately recruiters have to acknowledge that everyone has unconscious biases. Otherwise no change will happen in specific areas like recruitment and promotion. Being aware of biases – and embedding that awareness in every stage of the work lifecycle – can drive change. 

Also, it is important that companies keep in mind that changing the roots of a system which has been in place for centuries will not happen overnight. These issues should not be perceived as a passing trend or something that can be fixed with a week-long training course. Instead, determination and incremental and consistent steps can help organisations move towards a more inclusive and diverse workforce and directly tackle unconscious biases.

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