Unconscious bias

Author: Snéha Khilay

This line manager briefing can be adapted for use in your organisation, subject to the XpertHR terms and conditions of use.

Introduction

All individuals, including you in your role as a line manager, make unconscious choices that discriminate in favour of, or against, certain characteristics in a person or a group. As a result of these unconscious biases, processes such as recruitment, promotion, work allocation, performance reviews and redundancies are not conducted in a fair or consistent manner.

By acknowledging and addressing the unconscious biases that you, or others, have, you are helping to create an organisation that attracts, retains and nurtures the right skills irrespective of any differences, visible or invisible.

This briefing is intended to help you realise the value to you and your organisation of identifying and tackling unconscious bias, ensuring that you act fairly and within the law.

This line manager briefing is accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation for training purposes, which should be used in conjunction with the briefing. The briefing and PowerPoint presentation can be adapted for use, subject to the XpertHR terms and conditions of use.

Download in PowerPoint

What is unconscious bias?

Talking point

What does "unconscious bias" mean to you?

Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) is essentially a form of prejudice and can arise in all types of situation, including where you have the power to influence outcomes through your behaviour. It refers to the way in which your understanding, actions and decisions are affected by attitudes or stereotypes without your awareness and/or intentional control. You may believe that you are fair, objective and do not have automatic positive or negative feelings towards particular people; but in reality we all unconsciously categorise people and make judgments.

Your unconscious associations often underpin your attitudes about others based on characteristics such as race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion or disability. These biases, which may be favourable or unfavourable, stem from a tendency to make unconscious associations to help us organise and understand our social worlds. Unconscious biases therefore differ to consciously-held beliefs over which individuals exercise greater control.

Did you know that...

...within the first seven seconds of interacting with a stranger, you make an average of 11 judgments about that person. You then subconsciously continue to gather data to justify and maintain these judgments.

Talking point

Think back to the last stranger you interacted with, what judgments did you make about them?

Where do you get your biases from?

Your values, beliefs, expectations and standards are shaped early on in life by those closest to you, and may be reinforced through powerful messages from society, the media and other institutions. These messages fundamentally highlight who is "normal", "attractive" or of value and can therefore be included, and those who are "different", "unattractive" "not one of us" or who are of little or no value - and are consequently excluded. These thought patterns, assumptions, tendencies or biases help you to process information; a perceptual lens that filters out some aspects and allows preferences and biases to form. As you go through life, your surroundings, important events and influential people continue to shape you and your unconscious biases.

While unconscious biases exist, they do not operate as an excuse to take decisions that you can simply attempt to justify as being out of your control. Recognising your biases, or allowing others to call them out, means that they are no longer unconscious. This could be through self-reflection or interactions with other people who are different to us.

Different types of unconscious bias

Affinity bias

Affinity bias ("mini me") occurs where individuals favour people who are similar to themselves, rather than acting objectively. This can create a tendency to appoint or promote those who mirror attributes or qualities that align with those taking the decisions.

As a manager, you may be familiar with colloquial terms that reflect affinity bias, including recruiting a person who fulfils the elusive notion of being a "good fit" for the organisation, or identifying a candidate with whom you have "chemistry".

Quote from recruiting manager

"It's like going on a date, you just know when you are compatible."

Status quo bias

Status quo bias is similar to affinity bias but occurs where a person feels more comfortable with candidates and colleagues who will maintain the status quo of the team/organisation. The basis for this bias is that by following this route, they are taking less risk in the process.

For example, a manager appoints a younger colleague to a team of younger employees, despite an older candidate being more suitable for the role. Although the older colleague has more potential, the manager would prefer not to take the risk of going into the perceived unknown, thereby maintaining their status quo bias.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias (also known as "halo or horns" bias) occurs where actions and decisions taken by individuals are tailored to confirm what we already think.

If, for example, you feel negatively about young people, you may subconsciously be on the look-out for something to justify that bias. Comments such as "see what's happened? I knew he was too young to maintain that client-facing role", typify confirmation bias.

Similarly, if you judge an employee's performance positively, this view may prevail even where performance is less than satisfactory.

Truth bias

Truth bias occurs where individuals ignore information that conflicts with their views and beliefs. There is a tendency to remember, and repeat, information that maintains stereotypes, and forget, or ignore, information that dispels the stereotype. For example, you might be more likely to remember that a white British colleague supports a particular football team, and forget that an Indian colleague hates spicy food.

Truth bias in practice

In a study, participants were asked to listen to two audio recordings, together with two photos representing the people speaking on the recordings. One photo was of a white male, the other of an Asian male. The voice on both recordings was the same and was that of a native English speaker. However, participants rated the recording linked to the Asian person as having a stronger foreign accent than the white male, and also gave lower scores in response to their understanding of the information provided by the Asian male. Participants were "conditioned" to expect an accent from a person who is not white, even to the extent of finding an accent where no accent exists.

Benevolence bias

Benevolence bias occurs where managers overcompensate, or overprotect, those who are "different". For example, being too solicitous towards women about areas for professional development, or being less candid or specific in their performance assessments, compared to male employees.

Benevolence bias in practice

A woman who had returned from maternity leave was told by her male manager that she was unable to participate in a major project based in Europe. The manager thought he was being caring but failed to consider that perhaps the woman would have liked to work in Europe, thereby developing her career opportunities, and could make appropriate childcare arrangements.

Key take-aways: What is unconscious bias?

  • Bias is an inclination or prejudice for or against a person or group, especially in a way that is unfairly aimed at "out-groups" (those who are different to us, or with whom we do not identify).
  • Individuals are programmed to categorise others subconsciously, make biased judgments and jump to conclusions. This is a result of evolution, reinforced by socialisation.

The importance of tackling unconscious bias in the workplace

As part of your commitment to creating and cultivating a workplace that embraces equality, diversity and inclusion, it is important that you take steps to address any negative biases that limit opportunities or creativity, and that can lead to discrimination.

Your unconscious biases will have an impact on any interactions in the workplace. All people management processes may be affected by unconscious biases, including:

  • recruitment;
  • day-to-day management, such as work or leave allocation;
  • performance reviews;
  • promotion and;
  • redundancy.

One consequence of unconscious bias is that management processes are not always fair or consistent. As a result, you may give a job, promotion or task to a preferred (or possibly disliked) person rather than the person most objectively suited to it. The role or task is not performed well or to an acceptable level which, in turn, leads to performance management issues and a contributory impact on overall business performance.

Tackling assumptions and acknowleding attitudes can be a powerful agent for change in an organisation, even if at times it may feel uncomfortable. An organisation that is not truly diverse and inclusive cannot operate to its full potential. Diverse and dissenting voices within an organisation help to create an environment where decision-making processes are conducted in a way, and at a pace, that encourages challenge and objective thinking. Diverse teams tend to be creative, more innovative and better at problem-solving. From a commercial perspective, a business that is inclusive and innovative is also more likely to have a broader appeal to customers and suppliers.

Unconscious biases not only impact the way you view others, but also how you view yourself, which can affect your own performance at work. For example, if girls are told they cannot "do" maths, this tends to be reflected in their performance.

As unconscious biases may result in decisions being taken that prejudice persons with a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, 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.

Did you know that...

....unconscious bias has been called a "disease", an equal opportunity virus, and organisations need to be proactive to mitigate its effects.

Techniques for managing biases

As a line manager, you need to bear in mind that unconscious bias can have a significant negative impact on decisions regarding recruitment, promotion, performance reviews and other workplace interactions. By acknowledging the possibility of bias in a particular situation, you are more likely to ask yourself whether or not you are being fair and inclusive. Taking responsibility for considering issues raised in employee opinion surveys, exit interviews and appraisal reviews can highlight problems that you can then take steps to address.

Decisions that are taken under pressure, or without sufficient time, are far more likely to allow unconscious biases to operate. This is based on a person's instinctive response to reject any person that might be "different" or present a conflicting view. It is therefore important that you, as a line manager, take decisions at a pace that allows you to review and reflect, minimising the risk of unconscious bias coming into play.

Recruitment

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 skill set, 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. You should ensure that the standard recruitment, retention and progression cycle does not lead to high-calibre candidates outside normal recruitment pools being overlooked.

When recruiting, you should take account of the following:

  • Consider job fairs in the local community, allowing you to access candidates from different backgrounds.
  • Take into account religious and auspicious days when allocating days for job fairs.
  • Look afresh at where and how you advertise the role. Avoid placing advertisements in resources that target only a certain type of readership.
  • Include positive action statements in your advertisements to indicate that you value candidates from different walks of life. Check that the organisation's wider communications reflect this.
  • Consider whether or not the application form should be anonymous, to eliminate any possible bias towards the origin of certain names (and review the necessity and format of other questions, for example relating to age, gender or whether or not the candidate was educated overseas).
  • Consider a central pool of recruiters representing a diverse group of staff who are unlikely to mirror each other's biases, and ensure that they have an understanding of unconscious bias and strategies to address it.
  • Engage a diverse representation of staff to examine the competencies against which candidates are scored (including the categorisation of essential/non-essential competencies) to ensure that the role requirements are not themselves built on biases or preferences (and make a point of reviewing legacy processes for this).
  • Establish the scoring process for a role before you look at any CVs to reduce the risk of unconscious biases influencing the scoring system adopted.
  • When deciding on the scoring mechanism, consider a process that forces scoring to be either positive or negative based on specific competencies.
  • Ensure that your scoring process includes essential and non-essential competencies so that where the overall score of two candidates is identical, a decision can be taken based on the candidate who scored higher in essential competencies.
  • When auditing your recruitment processes, engage a diverse panel of people to check for the operation of unconscious biases and, if identified, take steps to make systemic changes, again with input from a diverse representation of staff.

Interviews

In an interview process, relying on first impressions and gut feelings, has the potential to lead to unfair and inaccurate judgments. Your prejudices may cause you to overlook talent, leaving the organisation vulnerable to discrimination claims. While you may have a subconscious view of what a "good" candidate looks like, it is essential to assess candidates on their own individual merit and crucially consider the specific skills and competencies required to meet the role requirements and objectives.

By not managing your biases in interviews, you increase the risk of not appointing the most suitable candidate for the role. To minimise this risk, when interviewing, you should take account of the following:

  • Ensure diverse representation in your panel members, who should also have undertaken unconscious bias training.
  • Avoid asking a candidate irrelevant questions about their background - instead focus on questions that are as factual and objective as possible (for example do not ask a candidate where they are from, but where they have travelled from) .
  • Contemplate not saying anything immediately after the conclusion of the interview to avoid the possibilty of biases entering the discussion as a knee-jerk response.
  • Consider having a break between interviewing candidates to discuss whether or not any biases may be at play.
  • Note, and address, any biases you may have about the candidate's profile, experience and other areas including education, location and length of service.
  • Score candidates consistently, and be explicit and transparent in the scores that you award.
  • Actively challenge other members of the interview panel around language patterns and avoid using euphemisms that can disguise biases (for example, "not being a good fit for the team", "the last candidate was so much better", "they would not quite blend in", etc).
  • Consider whether or not the candidate may have had any biases about you and learn from that.
  • Take sufficient notes of the interview and discussions following the interview.

Giving feedback

Feedback content should be concrete, precise and constructive. Actively consider whether or not your style and type of feedback is influenced by an individual's protected characteristic, for example age. It is important to maintain the objectivity of feedback to ensure fairness. When giving feedback, you should take account of the following:

  • Be aware of your language patterns when giving feedback to unsuccessful candidates. Are there any biases at play?
  • Avoid providing generalised reasons for not appointing a candidate and use specific examples.
  • Ensure all candidates receive feedback within a set timeframe.

Team meetings and work allocation

Consider if there are any biases in team meetings and the way in which work is allocated within the team. To minimise a risk of unconscious biases being allowed to operate in a team meeting environment, take account of the following:

  • Consider whether or not the same individuals dominate the meeting and ensure that work is not allocated according to those who are the most, or least, vocal.
  • Rotate those who chair the meeting to minimise the risk of the team leader's unconscious bias allowing the same individuals to contribute.
  • Ensure that work allocation is open and fair; the informal allocation of individuals to specific projects is an area where affinity bias may influence decisions.
  • While humour may be appropriate in team meetings at times, do not make biased jokes or engage in banter.
  • Ensure that you allocate work based on merit, experience and skills (including development needs), and explain in detail the rationale for your decisions.
  • Cultivate an environment where everyone has the opportunity to speak up (for example avoid routinely cutting short or interrupting people during meetings and workplace interactions).

Appraisals and staff development

Reflect on how you manage your expectations of your employees' performance. For example, consider whether or not you have lower expectations from employees of a particular background. When monitoring performance and appraising employees, you should take account of the following:

  • Be aware of the language patterns that you use with your employees and ensure that these do not reflect any unconscious bias. For example, referring to a woman as having "analysis paralysis" as opposed to a male colleague who exhibits similar behaviour as "careful and thoughtful".
  • Seek support if you are uncertain of your approach as an independent view can be helpful in identifying issues.
  • Ask colleagues and peers to review your appraisals for consistency in approach.
  • Review whether or not staff development (based on grading) is fair and proportionate for all employees.
  • Ensure that objective setting is consistent across all employees.
  • Review the volume of work given to employees, particularly in relation to the fair allocation of administrative tasks.
  • Avoid addressing a capacity issue, as a capability issue (for example, check whether or not you take it at face value when a certain employee says they have too much work, but with a different employee you assume it is because they are working less efficiently).

Monitoring and evaluation

It is important to monitor and evaluate processes regularly to ensure that unconscious bias is not operative. You may need to carry out a diversity audit, which is a structured process enabling you to analyse the composition of your workforce and positions held by, for example, persons with a particular protected characteristic. This may help to establish whether or not there are any negative effects of unconscious biases, particularly in areas of performance appraisals, disciplinary processes and promotions. For example, if a significant number of disciplinary cases are held against employees from a black and minority ethnic background rather than across employees of all backgrounds, this should be a cause for concern and investigation.

Having trusted advisors who can call out your, or other managers' biases, can help to identify if biases are operating. You may want to consider disclosing and sharing what you consider your biases to be so that others can call them out.

Embedding positive practices

You should ensure that all conversations you hold at work, whether they are between you and your team, with stakeholders or with clients, are conducted within a framework of fairness, respect and dignity. Ensure that you are open to the perspectives of others; contrasting viewpoints can minimise automatic biases. Foster and further conversations about biases to cultivate a culture of proactive measures and reassurances so that employees can call out biases when they occur.

Did you know that...

.....in one IT organisation, all the meeting rooms were named after famous scientists. A graduate pointed out that no rooms were named after female scientists. In response to the bias call-out, the management team remedied the situation and named some of the room names after female scientists.

Give yourself time to deliberate when carrying out tasks or 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.

Dos and Don'ts

Dos and don'ts

  • Do acknowledge that we all have biases.
  • Do be aware of what your biases are and how it can affect others.
  • Do explore with a trusted colleague how your biases were formed in early years.
  • Do develop strategies to create an open, honest and inclusive culture.
  • Do ensure all practices, from recruitment to retention, are in line with the policies that promote fairness.
  • Do understand the difference between opinion and facts.
  • Do justify decisions through evidence of fairness and inclusivity and record reasons for your decisions.
  • Do role model inclusive meeting practices, acknowledge everyone, recognise the value of taking time and respond constructively.
  • Do create supportive engagement by acknowledging how you are feeling, seek clarification (avoid assumptions) and explore proactive next steps by taking action within a timeframe.
  • Do provide constructive feedback while maintaining objectivity - focus on the positive behaviours of people, and not negative stereotypes.
  • Don't be complicit in maintaining any discriminatory practices, this includes legacy practices you inherited.
  • Don't maintain stereotypes of job roles, responsibilities and informal practices.
  • Don't ignore any biases exhibited by your colleagues or team members - be exploratory, not accusatory.
  • Don't police and negate any comments that highlight biases but explore the biases through a constructive dialogue.
  • Don't regard the responsibility to manage biases as another person's problem.
  • Don't be defensive if others identify bias in you - we all have biases.
  • Don't use prior good actions or decisions to justify taking less favourable ones.
  • Don't focus on one negative incident but think of other evidence that may contradict it.

Talking point

Biases are not permanent, they are malleable and can be changed by devoting time, intention, attention and an awareness of, and empathy towards, others. As Nelson Mandela said "it is in your hands to create a better world." What specific actions are you going to take to prevent unconscious bias impacting your line manager responsibilities?