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Unmasking Unconscious Bias in HR

8 min read
unconscious bias affecting decision making in the HR team

Unconscious bias can silently shape perceptions and decisions. In today’s workplaces, HR must be aware of its pervasive influence and the significant impact it can have on diversity and inclusion. Addressing it is essential for cultivating a fair and equitable work environment.

According to a survey by the Guardian on unconscious bias in the UK, as much as 43% of minority ethnic individuals reported believing they were unfairly overlooked for work promotions in the past five years, more than twice the proportion (18%) reported by those from a white ethnic background. The survey also found that unconscious bias adversely affects the lives of the 8.5 million individuals from minority backgrounds in Britain, highlighting a negative impact not adequately captured by conventional racism data.

Read on to learn more about the intricacies of unconscious bias, including its impacts and practical insights for how it can be addressed in HR. By understanding and mitigating unconscious bias, organisations can foster an inclusive culture where talent thrives, regardless of background, sexual orientation or identity.


What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias refers to the automatic stereotypes, attitudes, and prejudices that shape decision-making processes without conscious awareness. It’s also referred to as ‘implicit bias’, and is a powerful yet subtle force that silently influences perceptions and actions within the workplace. It operates beneath the surface and is driven by societal norms and cultural conditioning.

While conscious bias, also known as explicit bias, involves deliberate discriminatory attitudes or beliefs, many unconscious biases operate outside of people’s control. Even well-intentioned people can harbour these unconscious beliefs and biases, making it necessary to bring them to light for meaningful change to occur daily.

Unconscious Biases In The Workplace

Within the workplace, unconscious biases manifest in various ways, influencing HR processes and organisational dynamics. It can subtly sway hiring decisions, affect performance evaluations and impact promotion opportunities, leading to inequalities and acting as a barrier to diversity and inclusion.

Studies into its effects in the workplace reveal what this subtle behaviour may look like. For example, interviewees with implicit biases tended to sit farther away from black applicants than white applicants, made more speech errors, displayed less genuine smiles, or ended the interviews 25% earlier. In another setting, it was found that women are often evaluated less favourably when they exhibit characteristics typically associated with male leadership.

Let’s dig a little deeper into some common examples of other forms of unconscious biases that HR may encounter.


Types of Unconscious Bias

Affinity Bias

Affinity bias, or similarity bias, is the inclination to prefer people with common interests, backgrounds and experiences. It’s when a person or someone feels greater comfort and familiarity when interacting with people who resemble themselves.

When affinity bias is present, it can impact the hiring managers’ decisions when comparing candidates, because a hiring manager might be drawn towards a job applicant simply because they attended the same university or have a similar educational background.

Gender Bias

Gender bias refers to the preference or favouring of one gender over another. It occurs when individuals unconsciously link specific stereotypes with different genders.

This bias can have implications for recruitment processes and relationships within organisations. For instance, gender bias might manifest during the hiring process when the selection panel demonstrates a preference for male candidates over female candidates, even when their skills and job experience are comparable.

Conformity Bias

Conformity bias is the inclination to align thoughts, beliefs and behaviours with those of a larger group or influential individuals within a group. It can be particularly powerful in group settings, as the desire for social acceptance and conformity can overshadow individual opinions or independent thinking.

conformity bias affecting opinions within the HR Team


Ageism involves stereotyping or unfairly treating people based on age, often targeting older team members. It encompasses unfair personal treatment and extends to the portrayal of older professionals.

Experiencing ageism can have detrimental effects on various aspects of one’s life, including confidence, job opportunities, financial stability and overall quality of life. For instance, a clear example of ageism is when an older team member is overlooked for a promotion in favour of a younger colleague with less seniority or experience.

Authority Bias

Authority bias happens when people attribute more credibility or accuracy to information or opinions provided by others that are perceived as authoritative figures. When present, it can lead to placing excessive trust in their judgments, potentially overlooking alternative viewpoints or critical analysis.

Name Bias

Name bias refers to the inclination to favour particular names over others. This one’s particularly noticeable within the recruitment and interview process, where candidates with for example Anglo-sounding names often receive interview offers more frequently than equally qualified candidates with non-Anglo names.

Name bias in recruitment can significantly hinder diversity hiring efforts and lead to missed opportunities in hiring highly talented individuals. A study involving 83,000 job applications sent to 108 Fortune 500 companies revealed that job applicants with distinctively ethnic names were called back 10% fewer times compared to those with more traditional sounding names, even when the qualifications and experience of the applicants were similar.

Beauty Bias

Beauty bias refers to the tendency to attribute positive qualities to individuals based on physical appearance. This is when potential employees are perceived as more competent, trustworthy and persuasive based on their appearance, leading to preferential treatment in the workplace.

Halo Effect

This type of unconscious bias is when you form a positive overall impression of someone based on a single quality or trait they possess. This effect can lead people to unconsciously idealise others as they construct an image of them based on limited information.

In the context of recruitment, an example of the halo effect occurs when a hiring manager notices that a candidate graduated from a prestigious school and automatically assumes they must be highly skilled. This positive perception is influenced by the hiring manager’s bias towards academic backgrounds. However, it’s worth noting that attending a prestigious school does not guarantee job competency.


Anchor Bias

Anchor bias occurs when people rely too heavily on the initial information presented when making subsequent judgments or decisions. Once an anchor is established, it becomes challenging to move away from it, even if there is evidence suggesting a different perspective.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek, interpret, and remember information that confirms existing beliefs, biases or preconceptions. It can hinder objective decision-making and limit the ability to consider alternative viewpoints.

How Unconscious Bias Affects the Workplace

Research from the Centre of Talent Innovation finds that unconscious bias in the workplace seems to have a direct relationship with employee flight risk and brand sabotage. This is mostly because unconscious bias doesn’t foster a positive company culture built to retain team members or make them feel like they’re a respected part of the organisation. Unchecked, unconscious bias can make employees feel isolated and marginalised, harming their well-being and job satisfaction.

In the long run, unconscious bias could guarantee that your organisation loses out on a diverse workforce and misses opportunities to employ talented people.

How to Spot Unconscious Biases

Catching unconscious bias while it’s happening can be tricky for those who perpetuate it and those on the receiving end. It’s mostly caught when looking back at things retrospectively, as people reflect on their actions and thoughts and as feedback or review processes occur.

One way to spot unconscious bias is by paying attention to language. Some words or phrases that reflect a bias towards a particular group or stereotype may be used. For example, if someone consistently refers to women as emotional or irrational, this could be a sign of implicit bias.

implicit bias in the hr team at a company

Another way to spot unconscious bias is by observing behaviour. If someone constantly chooses to work with people with similar interests to them regarding race, gender, or background, this could be a sign of unconscious bias. Or if someone consistently overlooks the contributions of certain individuals or groups, this could also be a sign of unconscious bias.

Tips to Deal With Unconscious Bias

If you’ve identified unconscious bias trends in your organisation or team, there are many things you can do to mitigate and prevent it from continuing. Here are some of the effective steps you can take to combat unconscious bias in the workplace.

1. Awareness and Education

Unconscious bias thrives in the shadows of people’s minds, invisible yet pervasive. The first step in mitigating unconscious bias is to shine a light on it through self-awareness and education. Team members should practise introspection, examining their biases and preconceptions. So through fostering an open dialogue and encouraging self-reflection, organisations can create a culture of awareness that extends beyond HR to all employees.

2. The Power of Unconscious Bias Training

HR must equip themselves and their colleagues with the necessary tools to challenge unconscious bias. Training programmes focused on unconscious bias effectively expand cognitive horizons and challenge deeply ingrained stereotypes. These programmes can be designed to be interactive and engaging, using real-world scenarios and case studies to illustrate the impact of bias. Training sessions can help individuals recognise bias in themselves and others by fostering empathy.

3. Make Room for Mentoring

To build an organisation with a culture of inclusivity and belonging for diverse groups, consider building a workplace mentoring programme. When pairing senior leaders with more junior employees, for example, organisations can open up career opportunities for diverse new talent and give leaders fresh perspectives. Over time, these mentoring programmes can have additional benefits, such as increasing retention and employee engagement.

4. Creating Bias-Free Environments

Sometimes recognising and addressing unconscious bias on an individual level is not enough; organisations must strive to create bias-free environments. HR can play a pivotal role in fostering a culture of inclusivity by implementing strategies such as blind hiring, diverse interview panels, and structured performance evaluations. By designing systems that prioritise merit and skill over subjective judgments, HR can mitigate the impact of unconscious bias and create equitable opportunities for all.

5. Ongoing Monitoring and Evaluation

Addressing unconscious bias is not a one-time endeavour but an ongoing process. HR must embrace the importance of continuous monitoring and evaluation to ensure that bias mitigation efforts yield lasting results. Regularly reviewing HR processes, collecting employee feedback, and analysing diversity metrics can provide valuable insights into the effectiveness of implemented strategies. This data-driven approach enables HR to adapt and refine their approaches, maintaining forward momentum in the battle against implicit bias.

Leveraging Digital Tools to Mitigate Unconscious Bias

Technology can play a pivotal part in mitigating unconscious bias, and HR can leverage available technology to augment their efforts. Digital tools, like Factorial, provide data-driven insights and analytics that can illuminate hidden biases within recruitment, performance evaluations, and other HR processes. These tools offer a neutral and objective lens, empowering HR to make informed decisions and identify areas for improvement.

Applicant Tracking System (ATS)

An ATS goes beyond streamlining the hiring process. It can play a vital role in mitigating bias by providing a standardised and structured approach. Removing these personal identifiers such as names, ages, and genders, HR can focus on evaluating candidates solely based on their qualifications and skills. This allows for a fair and unbiased assessment, reducing the impact of unconscious and explicit bias even during the initial screening stage.

Anonymous Performance Reviews

Traditional performance reviews can be susceptible to bias. However, HR software equipped with anonymous performance reviews enables a shift towards objectivity. When concealing employee identities, HR can evaluate a person based performance solely based on measurable metrics and job-related competencies. This approach fosters a fair assessment process, free from the influence of unconscious bias.

Bias Detection Algorithms

Cutting-edge HR software incorporates powerful algorithms designed to detect and flag potential instances of bias. These algorithms analyse data patterns, such as the language used in job descriptions or candidate evaluations, to identify subtle biases that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Diversity Analytics and Reporting

HR software can also provide comprehensive diversity analytics and reporting functionalities. This enables HR to gain insights into their organisation’s diversity metrics, such as representation across different demographics and departments. By visualising this data, companies can identify any imbalances or disparities, allowing them to develop targeted strategies for promoting diversity and inclusion.

Sergio is a seasoned copy and content writer who has worked directly with company founders, CMOs, brand executives, and marketing directors from multiple industries. He's an HR geek and humble terpsichorean.

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