What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias has an impact on every decision we make. Consider this, you meet someone for the first time and make a ‘snap’ decision that you do not like them, why?

Unconscious, or implicit, bias is when our ‘brains’ make incredibly quick judgements, and assessments about people and situations without us realising, and are a result of our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

We may not be aware of these views and/or opinions or that they impact on the way we make decisions, so why should you worry?

Why is awareness of unconscious bias important?

Just realising that you have this bias can enable us to monitor and adapt any hidden thoughts and prejudices we may have before they are expressed in our decisions.

An example of where awareness of unconscious bias is particularly important is during the Recruitment and Selection process. It is well documented that we make up our mind about an applicant in about 7 seconds. In this time we have probably consciously registered their appearance, the way they speak and the quality of their handshake. But we may also be making judgements about these things, without registering it in our consciousness. ”They look young – they probably won’t have enough experience”, “They have a lazy eye – that might be a problem for computer work.” They are from a BAME background – no-one else in that department is from a BAME background, will they feel comfortable”. This is our unconscious at work.

Making decisions about which candidate to hire is hard and will depend on you being able to judge them fairly and equitably, based entirely on the facts supplied rather than their personal traits.

If you recruit based on that 7 second ‘gut-feeling’, you are likely to be hiring based on your unconscious biases.

Once we accept that we will naturally use subconscious mental ‘shortcuts’, then we can take the time to consider them and reflect on whether such thought processes are inappropriate and affecting any objectivity in our decision-making.

How to ensure unconscious biases do not affect our decision-making?

Even making minor changes can be helpful.
There are some simple actions that we can undertake whilst recruiting, such as:

  • When shortlisting – do not compare one applicant directly against another – you should be comparing each application against the set criteria of the job description, personal specification, etc.
  • Interviewing – take time to develop a structured set of questions and ensure that they are consistently applied to each applicant being interviewed. Supplemental questions can then be asked of the individuals when, and if, there is a need to gather further information.
  • Ensure that all decisions are evidence-based and can be supported by factual feedback centred on the individual’s application, performance during the interview process and against the set criteria.
  • When shortlisting or conducting interviews, take your time and schedule regular breaks – unconscious bias tends to have more of an impact on our decision making when there are time pressures and/or other distractions.

In conclusion

It helps to be aware of unconscious bias. Once we accept that we will quite naturally use this subconscious mental shortcut, then we can take time to consider and reflect on whether such thought processes are inappropriately affecting the objectivity of our decision-making.

A final thought, unconscious bias in the workplace can impact on such decisions as the development of employees, retention rates and diversity, as well as recruitment. Therefore, it is vital for schools to address unconscious bias in order to develop and maintain a fully inclusive workforce.

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Debbie Smith

Debbie Smith

Debbie is an HR Consultant, having worked mainly within the NHS and healthcare, including hospitals, but also in the service industries, including construction and estates management, for over 20 years. She is a member of the Cipd.