How does unconscious bias influence the decisions we make in our organisations, and how can we avoid this?

Last week, we discussed how organisations can improve on their recruitment processes and touched on unconscious bias.

Jonny Gifford of the CIPD is of the opinion that assessing individuals involves a complex mix of variables, and there is so much potential for unconscious bias that we have to root it out as much as we can.

So what is unconscious bias?

According to ACAS, unconscious bias occurs when people favour others who look like them or share their values.

Unconscious bias at work can influence decisions in recruitment, promotion, staff development and recognition and can lead to a less diverse workforce. Employers can overlook talented workers and instead favour those who share their own characteristics or views.

Behaviour which reinforces the bias is noticed whilst behaviour which does not is ignored. This is we justify decisions based on unconscious bias.

We all have unconscious biases. The brain receives information all the time from our own experiences and what we read, hear or see in the media and from others. The brain uses shortcuts to speed up decision making, and unconscious bias is a by-product. There are times when this sort of quick decision making is useful, for example if faced with a dangerous situation, however it is not a good way to make decisions when recruiting or promoting employees.

Forms of unconscious bias can include:

  • The halo effect – this is where a positive trait is transferred onto a person without anything really being known about that person. The halo effect occurs when we let an interviewee’s good qualities – or at least those we perceive – colour our perceptions of their less attractive ones and lead us overlook their weaknesses
  • Successive contrasting bias – when a phenomenal candidate causes recruiters to negatively judge others who are interviewed after them, when they would have been judged more favourably under different conditions
  • Confirmation bias – the tendency we can have to search for, interpret, favour and recall information in a way that confirms pre-existing beliefs.
  • Groupthink – if a group of people are making a decision, the strongest personality in the group can impose their view, and the rest of the group will agree with them to maintain harmony
  • Anchoring bias – when individuals use an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgements

Unconscious bias:

  • Is natural
  • Is unintended
  • Can affect decisions
  • Can be mitigated

It’s also important to note that, where unconscious bias is against a protected characteristic, it can be discriminatory. For example, if during a recruitment process an employer ignores the skills and experience of a candidate who is a different race than them and appoints another candidate who is the same race, this could be discriminatory.

Conscious thoughts are controlled and well-reasoned. Unconscious thoughts can be based on stereotypes and prejudices that we may not even realise we have. 

Stress or tiredness may increase the likelihood of decisions based on unconscious bias.

So how can we overcome unconscious bias?

  • Be mindful
  • Challenge and question our perceptions
  • Don’t rush decisions but take time to consider issues thoroughly
  • Justify decisions by evidence and record the reasons for our decisions
  • Try to work with a wider range of people and get to know them as individuals
  • Focus on the positive behaviour of people and not negative stereotypes

As an employer, you should have measures in place to limit unconscious bias, and implement policies and procedures which limit the influence of individual characteristics and preferences.

If you need support with the issues touched up on in this post, contact us!


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