Could unconscious bias be hindering diversity in your workplace?

Are you unconsciously or accidentally biased in your judgments at work? Research shows that “Unconscious Bias” is prevalent at work and hinders diversity, progress and success, despite the best equality and diversity training. What can we do to address this?

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick or “snap” judgments and assessments of people and situations without our realising this. Our biases are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences. They are not necessarily based on rational and objective facts. The human mind takes in 1 million pieces of information per second but we are only conscious of taking in 40 of these. Yet those other pieces of information still influence our decisions and assessments.

Does Unconscious Bias Happen in the Workplace?

Unconscious bias influences all our actions, from what we eat for breakfast, to whom we choose to lead a new project at work. For example, if we have two team members in line for a promotion, we put together the paperwork and our rational brain scores factors such as past achievement, skills and performance in an interview. However, our decision may also have been based on other factors without our even being aware of it. It may be difficult to admit, but we tend to be unconsciously biased regarding race, gender, age, social class, and more. Our brains are trained rapidly to categorise people instinctively using obvious and visible categories: age, body weight, physical attractiveness, skin colour, gender and disability. But we also use many other less visible categories such as accent, social background, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, education, and even job title or organisational department. So could our decision to pick one team member have been partly, if unintentionally, because of her social class or religion?

The reality is that our attitudes and behavior toward other people can be influenced as much by our instinctive feelings as by our rational thought processes. And that hidden drive affects everything, from what clothes we wear to whom we pick to run the next meeting. And of course that affects that staff member’s own personal development and career prospects.

It’s hard to admit that we have these biases. Most of us would like to say that we try not to be prejudiced. Yet, can we honestly say that we have no internal biases at all? Research shows otherwise. A 2014 report showed that 67% of the British public felt uncomfortable talking to disabled people. A US study showed that applicants with traditionally “African-American” names had to send 50% more applications than applicants with traditionally “white” names but identical applications to get an interview.  It’s been found that using “blind” auditions for orchestras makes it 50% more likely that women will reach the final selection round. This is despite compulsory equality and diversity training in most organisations.

Why does it Matter

Most organisations recognise the benefits of diversity and recruiting and managing staff on merit, rather than on bias. The following are some of the main advantages:

  • Better performance – a team of people from different backgrounds can provide a greater variety of perspectives and solutions to problems – research shows that groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups with high ability.
  • Better customer service – diverse people bring a greater range of skills and abilities along with empathy for different cultures, which can better meet the needs of diverse service users.
  • Greater innovation – studies show that organisations with a diverse leadership tend to be more innovative.
  • Recruiting the best people with the best skills – welcoming candidates regardless of race, gender, age, or background means you can hire from a larger pool of people, so you are more likely to hire the best people on the job market.
  • Better retention – embracing diversity can also improve existing staff members’ loyalty to your organisation.

How to Avoid Unconscious Bias

You can address the discrimination issues which unconscious bias causes by increasing your awareness of your own unconscious biases and by making the most of the skills of your own staff.

Focus on Your Own Unconscious Bias

Be honest with yourself about the stereotypes that affect you. For example, you may consciously think that men and women are equally effective leaders but, as a woman, you might believe that men don’t always have the same level of empathy and people skills as women. That subconscious bias could influence your actions so that male candidates could be excluded from certain roles or positions.

Try to prevent unconscious bias from influencing your recruitment decisions. For example, make sure the wording of your job advert doesn’t favour one group of people (for instance, use words that appeal equally to men and women).

Consider taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT), created by researchers from Harvard, Virginia and Washington Universities at  This gives an indication of your own unconscious bias in the areas of race, disability, or body weight etc.

Focus on People

Many organisations are so focused on their processes that they lose sight of their people. Taking time to listen, consult and resolve can help you reach your objectives more quickly and successfully. Think about some of the following pointers for best practice:

  • Whenever you have a strong reaction to someone (positive or negative) ask yourself why).
  • Ensure all voices are heard. Recognise achievements and give credit to the right person.
  • To maximise the power of diverse perspectives, include and seek input from people with a wide variety of backgrounds.
  • Make a habit of asking questions:
    • Ask for feedback.
    • Ask how you can work together more effectively.
    • Ask when you are not sure what are your staff’s thoughts, feelings or motivations.
    • Ask yourself what assumptions you have made and whether they are valid.
  • Address misunderstandings and resolve disagreements.
  • To reduce the possibility of acting or speaking from a biased stance, make a conscious effort to reduce stressful situations by:
    • Keeping calm;
    • Not speaking loudly or interrupting;
    • Pausing before speaking; and
    • Relieving time pressure where possible.
  • Surround yourself with positive words and images about people you might have stereotypical thoughts about, to help eliminate negative biases. For example, if you are interviewing someone who has just moved from Russia and you’re worried about her language skills or cultural differences, or someone with a particular disability, look at positive images of people with those characteristics and read about their success stories, so you won’t subconsciously assume they are not capable of doing the job.
  • Use language which is clear and non-biased, such as “she or he” instead of always using “he,”. Be careful about subconsciously using positive language only for preferred team members.


Make sure your staff are trained in unconscious bias. The more we all understand unconscious bias and how to address this, the less we will unintentionally discriminate against others.

Everyone has unconscious biases. They are the brain’s natural way of coping with and categorising the information we receive every day. Our challenge is to recognise these and to change our behavior so that these biases don’t result in unintentional discrimination. We can all achieve this by thinking about our own unconscious biases and by focusing on best practice.

Elizabeth Scholes is an independent Employment Law and HR Consultant who specialises in the Third Sector. A former employment solicitor, Elizabeth has worked extensively with charities and voluntary organisations, and has also been a Trustee at two large Birmingham charities.

BVSC runs regular courses around Equality as part its ongoing training programme, led by Elizabth Scholes. Check the website for any forthcoming dates.

This article, by Elizabeth Scholes, was written for the April & May 2017 edition of Update Magazine.

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