In this article
Unconscious or implicit bias refers to beliefs about individuals or groups of people that we are often unaware we have. When bias exists, your organisation will struggle to recruit and retain diverse teams, and workplace inclusion will be hindered.
Research has shown that a diverse workforce, at all levels of an organisation, is more effective. Diversity refers to the existence of variations of different characteristics in a group of people.
These characteristics could be everything that makes us unique, such as:
- Our cognitive skills.
- Our opinions.
- Our life experiences.
- Our socio-economic status.
- Our personality traits.
- Our physical characteristics.
As well as the characteristics that are protected by the Equality Act 2010:
- Gender Reassignment.
- Marriage or civil partnership (in employment only).
- Pregnancy and maternity.
- Religion or belief.
- Sexual orientation.
How does unconscious bias impact the workplace?
Inclusion denotes the idea that every person in an organisation, or applying to be part of it, is treated with respect and given the same opportunities.
Unconscious biases work under the surface of our thinking without us realising, and, ultimately, may lead us to exclude certain people. Unconscious biases can cause just the same damage in the workplace as they do in our day-to-day lives. It can have real consequences on the employee experience, and, over time, it can hinder the organisation’s ability to perform effectively.
Unconscious biases can happen in any organisation and affects many things in the workplace including, for example, the recruitment process, employee interactions, teamwork, or people management and development processes. When unconscious bias interferes with the decision-making process, it affects objectivity and impartiality that can lead to discrimination.
Where unconscious bias exists in a workplace, it can affect the morale and the overall employee experience. These employees may end up feeling side-lined or alienated, and also may be less likely to make their ideas heard. Someone that goes through negative bias may be more likely to start looking for another job.
We will now look in more detail at how unconscious bias can impact the workplace and ways to avoid it happening.
Avoiding unconscious bias when recruiting staff
We will start by identifying what the recruitment biases are and how they operate. Awareness is the first step to undoing unconscious bias, because it allows people to recognise that everyone possesses biases and helps people to identify their own biases.
Even in the early recruitment stages, unconscious bias can impact the process. Consider where you source your candidates from. Candidate sourcing is the initial part of the recruiting process where recruiters search to find quality candidates.
During the candidate sourcing process, recruiters select media to advertise a vacancy in order to generate a pool of potential candidates. The source of your candidate pool may unconsciously predict the characteristics of your applicants.
Some of the most popular places to source candidates include but are not limited to:
- Organisation’s own website.
- Social media such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.
- Local and national newspaper advertising.
- Job sites such as Total Jobs, Monster, Reed, Glassdoor.
- Agencies and search specialists.
- Word of mouth.
Can you identify where biases may be present in the sourcing option(s) you choose? Try advertising a vacancy in at least two different places to reach a wide range of people from different backgrounds.
Examples of unconscious bias in job advertisements are vast. However, with a little thought you can eliminate unconscious bias in your job advertisements.
When organisations are questioned about why their workforce does not reflect the wider community, their response is often “They don’t apply”. Rather than blaming the applicants, organisations should be seriously considering whether they are advertising their roles in the wrong place and using biased language that deters rather than attracts candidates.
First, be careful with your job titles – gender-neutral job titles should always be used to attract candidates from either gender. It is amazing that so many masculine job titles still exist. Do you have any in your organisation?
Next, consider how you are wording the advertisement itself; certain words have been proven to attract or deter some male and female candidates as well as candidates from different age groups.
The use of certain words to describe certain roles is often intrinsic, which is the danger of stereotypes, as although employers and recruiters are not explicitly targeting male or female applicants, they are accidentally positioning their advert in a way to appeal to a specific gender.
Stick to neutral language in job advertisements or bounce between both masculine and feminine phraseology to encourage as many applicants as possible.
Examples of male gendered words:
Examples of female gendered words:
This doesn’t mean a man cannot be enthusiastic or that a woman cannot be a self-starter, but these words tend to have more appeal to each gender when they consider the job advertisement and decide whether to apply.
Research shows that male-biased advertisements are found in industries including science, marketing and sales, while female-biased advertisements are widespread within administration, service industries and social care.
Most concerning in regards to gender equality, is that the research shows that there is a distinct male bias in advertisements for senior positions, while supporting roles are worded with feminine biased words.
When advertising a job role, employers can not include age constraints, and should avoid using words which could suggest they are looking for applicants from a particular age group. This can be explicitly with terms such as “10 years’ experience” and “Graduate”, or more implicitly using terms such as “Mature”, “Energetic”, “salary relevant to age and experience”.
Phrases to watch for include but are not limited to:
- In touch with latest thinking.
- Newly qualified.
- Junior or senior, unless it is made clear that the term is being used to describe the level of responsibility essential in the job.
When it comes to experience, requirements should be described in terms of the type of experience or the depth of experience, rather than a simple number of years of experience.
It is not only words that can convey bias in recruitment advertising, but including photographs of certain individuals or groups in recruitment material could also give rise to an inference that applications from individuals not represented in the photographs are not welcome.
Job descriptions and person specifications
In much the same way as job advertisements, job descriptions and person specifications often contain phrases that convey particular characteristics are being sought which may deter some individuals from applying.
When describing a role, lists of desired skills and experience can be exhaustive, but this can be disproportionately off-putting for women. The key is to separate the list between must-haves and nice-to-haves. If something isn’t absolutely essential, then consider omitting it to avoid putting up unnecessary barriers to entry.
- Specifying certain types of qualification, especially where the qualification in question is one that has been available for a relatively short number of years, such as NVQs.
- A statement that job applicants must have a defined minimum number of years’ experience in order to be eligible for appointment to the post, as this would discriminate indirectly against younger candidates who are less likely than older people to have the requisite length of experience.
- Including criteria relating to health, fitness or physical characteristics, including sickness record, as this may amount to indirect discrimination against disabled candidates, unless there is an objectively justifiable reason.
Shortlisting for interview
An application process should be standardised and enable you to assess each applicant objectively and consistently against the selection criteria listed in the person specification.
If you have been crystal clear about the criteria you are measuring applicants against, shortlisting should be easy. It is best practice to have at least two people shortlisting in a formal meeting setting; they can then each actively challenge any assumptions made by the other.
In the recruitment process, unconscious bias happens when you form an opinion about candidates based solely on first impressions.
These impressions can be formed from, for example:
- Their name on the application.
- The area they live in.
- The school / college / university they attended.
- Levels of qualifications they have attained.
- Past employers they have worked for.
- Number of years’ work experience they have.
- The layout of their application.
Biases can lead to generalisations, not based on skills, that determine the right candidate for the job. Assessing applications without including any personal information is an effective way to remove any bias against diverse applicants. A blind, systematic process for reviewing applications will help your organisation improve the chances of including the most relevant candidates in the interview pool.
Structured interviews, where each candidate is asked the same set of predefined questions and grading candidates’ responses to each question on a predetermined scale, standardise the interview process and minimise bias.
Interviews should be conducted by a panel to minimise any subjectivity.
The interview panel members should meet prior to the interview stage to agree and set:
- The selection criteria and relative weightings, which are objectively justifiable and which directly and clearly correspond to the criteria described in the job description and person specification.
- Suitable interview questions which should remain focused on the behaviours, skills and experience listed in the person specification and which should directly and clearly correspond to the criteria described in the job description and the person specification. The same questions should be asked of each interviewee.
- A standardised system of scoring for use throughout the process.
At the interview stage, panel members need to be especially careful to avoid making judgements about applicants on the basis of subjective impressions and bias. They must ensure that decisions about the suitability of candidates are based solely on how well they match the criteria for the job, as set out in the person specification.
You should only administer selection tests that can reasonably be considered to provide relevant, reliable and valid assessments of the applicants’ abilities to perform the duties of the job.
All candidates should undertake the same test, unless there is a health and safety reason why they cannot do so, or unless a reasonable adjustment is required, for example, by giving an applicant who is disabled due to dyslexia more time to complete it.
Employment skills tests can open the door for a more diverse set of employees. Rather than relying on subjective measures, employers can utilise skills tests and the resulting data to objectively identify candidates who possess the needed skills to succeed in a position.
Evaluating staff performance effectively
Bias is a real concern in performance reviews and causes many employees to view them as subjective and highly ambiguous.
A lack of clear guidelines for the staff performance evaluation process almost inevitably leads to bias. To solve this problem, organisations should create a clear evaluation structure and measurable objectives aligned with the organisation’s goals for all managers to follow, and then train them on how to implement it rather than leaving the review to their own discretion.
This clear structure and measurable objectives will help improve the accuracy of evaluations.
Reviewing performance against business goals more often than an annual assessment allows you to track progress more effectively, and avoids biases such as the halo and horns effect where people may be judged primarily on their most recent achievements or failures.
Seek input from different people who work with an employee, for example direct reports, peers, and service users or clients. Getting multiple perspectives through a 360 review will give you a clearer understanding of how the employee is performing.
By reducing bias in your reviews and helping managers to have a genuine impact on the development of their team, you will boost organisation performance too.
Key to an inclusive working environment is making sure everyone has equal opportunities, such as access to learning and development programmes.
Biases in the workplace tend to affect who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets raises, who gets development opportunities and who gets what kind of work, among other things. By knowing where bias is most likely to creep in, you can take steps to ensure that biases are considered when important decisions are made in those areas.
Continually selecting the same go-to people, the employees you know best or personally like the most for projects, exposure opportunities, advance training or promotion, you might be overlooking the potential in other employees that you haven’t paid as much attention to.
People will notice if they’re continually passed over for “the favourites” and they can become discouraged and disengaged. Select employees whose skill sets and expertise most closely align with what is needed by the organisation.
Create an environment in which all employees can gain access to resources that can aid them in their career progression. To find out what your employees want, engage with them on an individual level. Rotate the employees you assign to projects, exposure opportunities and advance training to give everyone an opportunity to participate and to keep all team members engaged.
Don’t promote arbitrarily, without first announcing the opportunity to your entire team. Other employees, especially those with similar experience, skills and tenure could get upset that they were not made aware of, or even considered for, promotional opportunities.
They may wonder whether their colleague’s promotion was truly based on justifiable business reasons, such as performance, skill, merit or expertise; or if the promotional selection was biased or discriminatory.
There are steps you can take to ensure that your organisation is operating fair promotion:
- Have a promotion policy clearly outlining the selection criteria for each open position. This policy should include procedures for announcing available positions internally and explaining the steps to apply. The promotion process should be transparent and accessible to all employees. Everyone should feel like they are on the same playing field and know what it takes to be promoted.
- Have regular, ongoing performance reviews so everyone understands how they are performing.
- Involve more than one decision maker to ensure objectivity in the process and to prevent one person’s unconscious biases clouding the outcome.
- Document who applied, who was interviewed and why you did or did not promote a particular employee.
Legal implications of bias in the workplace
Unconscious bias is, by definition, not deliberate, and most employers want to treat individuals fairly.
However, as there is no cap on the compensation available for discrimination claims, mistakes in this area are potentially very costly. Unconscious bias is a growing legal issue for employers.
It is widely regarded as a barrier to equality, diversity and inclusion, and employment tribunals are looking more closely at motivation and bias in discrimination and harassment cases.
Allowing unconscious bias to affect decision-making will be unlawful if the bias relates to a protected characteristic as specified in the Equality Act 2010.
These protected characteristics are:
- Gender reassignment.
- Marriage and civil partnership.
- Pregnancy and maternity.
- Religion or belief.
- Sexual orientation.
The Equality Act 2010 makes clear that the protected characteristic does not have to be in the forefront of a decision maker’s mind for unlawful discrimination to occur.
Case law established that an employment tribunal should examine the “reason why” an individual was treated less favourably, taking into account the employer’s “conscious or subconscious reason for the treatment”.
Of course, unconscious bias may operate against other traits or characteristics that are not specifically protected by law; it is also important to identify and address these too.