Unconscious Bias

  • Discrimination
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

In this guide, we'll discuss the different types of unconscious bias, training, and steps you can take to prevent it from occurring.

Unconscious biases influence most people's decision-making. Whilst it's not intentional, they can cause more harm than good.

As an employer, it's in your best interest to prevent unconscious biases from occurring in your workplace. To do so, you could request staff take training, or reevaluate your current recruitment procedure.

Failure to avoid making unconscious biases may result in your staff experiencing discrimination. Consequently, they might raise a discrimination claim against you at an employment tribunal.

In this guide, we'll discuss the different types of unconscious bias, training, and steps you can take to prevent it from occurring.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias - also known as implicit bias, is a set of attitudes, stereotypes, and perceptions we have towards certain groups of people. These beliefs aren't something we are consciously aware of; creating our own biases is part of our everyday brain processing.

In fact, unconscious biases act as mental shortcuts to help our brains process information faster, aiding our decision-making. For example, if you saw an elderly person struggling to pack their shopping away at a checkout, you might offer to help them without even thinking.

But, these types of bias can also have adverse effects on a person and the people around them. Whilst they help inform the choices we make, they can also lead us to have warped judgements about diverse groups of people. Creating problems for both you and your staff in the workplace.

What is the difference between unconscious bias and conscious bias?

The main difference between unconscious bias and conscious bias is what causes them. For example, unconscious bias occurs in response to a quick judgement made by an individual's brain. Whereas, conscious bias is biased attitudes that we’re aware of, which can be accessed and changed.

Unconscious bias is harder to control, but influences our actions more than our conscious biases - which we have more control over.

Whilst both differ, they're both harmful in influencing our prejudices against specific social groups.

What are some common examples of unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias occurs more often than you might think. One common example of this type of bias is authority bias, which occurs when we are more influenced by those in positions of authority, such as a doctor or lawyer.

Other unconscious biases include:

Confirmation bias

One example of an unconscious bias is confirmation bias. This type of bias occurs when an individual searches for information or data that confirms their views on a subject. Put simply, they might ignore valid contrasting points in favour of views that support their argument.

For example, a designer creates a product for dancers. Their dancer friends encourage them to pursue the product as they believe it's a good idea. However, market research advises that this is not the case. Despite this, the designer put the product on the market.

To avoid confirmation bias, gather multiple sources when researching and suggesting an idea. This will give you a well-rounded perspective of the proposal and inform how you approach it.

Conformity bias

Another example of unconscious bias is conformity bias. This happens when an individual changes their principles, opinions and beliefs to fit in with their peers. So instead of forming their judgements, they succumb to peer pressure.

For example, in a team brainstorming meeting, you may have junior staff in attendance. During the session, most of your staff agree to one idea, whilst a junior employee has a different idea to propose. But, because of conformity bias, they instead follow the majority.

To avoid conformity bias at work, you could use a suggestion box instead of verbally expressing ideas. This way, less experienced staff members will be more encouraged to share their opinions, as they know they won't have to present them in front of a group of people.

Anchor bias

Anchor bias is the tendency for an individual to rely on the first information received on a topic when decision-making. After this, they might be exposed to newer pieces of data, but are still mostly driven by the first piece of information (or the anchor).

For example, your employee researches a service your business needs to hire. The first service they see is highly expensive, whilst the other two are marginally cheaper. Consequently, they pick one of the cheaper options and don't research the cost further.

To avoid anchor bias, you should encourage staff to take time with their decision-making and acknowledge their thought process. Becoming aware of unconscious biases makes it easier to avoid them, so encourage your staff to notice theirs.

Overconfidence bias

Overconfidence bias occurs when a person subjectively assesses their ability to perform a task or an action. Typically, this assessment is an overestimate, which can create tricky situations for the people it affects.

For example, you brief a new task to one of your senior employees. They believe they can do the work in a timely manner, so claim they'll complete it by the next day. However, they realise the job is more complicated than they originally thought, so ask for an extended deadline.

To avoid overconfidence bias, you should encourage your staff to give feedback to others. This will give them a more objective perception of their performance. And if everyone is encouraged to receive and provide feedback, it becomes a habit which staff won't be embarrassed about.

What types of unconscious bias is based on appearance?

Several unconscious biases occur in the workplace, such as beauty bias. Other biases that occur at work include:

Gender bias

Gender bias is when a person favours one gender over another. Also known as sexism, this bias occurs when people unconsciously associate specific stereotypes with different genders.

For example, your company might post a job advertisement promoting two vacancies. Both male and female candidates apply, and your recruiting managers hire both a male and female.

But, they believe men work harder than women, and offer the male candidate a higher starting salary.

One way you can avoid gender bias is to have a clear policy on gender or sex discrimination at work. This should include what sexist behaviours look like, and what conduct is inappropriate. Not to mention, it'll inform your employees about what is expected of them, and what isn’t tolerated.

Racial bias

Another example of unconscious bias based on another person's appearance is racial bias. This occurs when an individual favours people of a certain race over others.

For example, an employee refuses to work with a foreign staff member because they don't believe they're hardworking.

It could even look like your hiring managers favouring white applicants over applicants of colour.

To avoid racial bias, you should develop a clear policy of racism in the workplace. Again, like gender discrimination policies, you should include what behaviour isn't acceptable, as well as ways your employees can practice inclusivity.

Beauty bias

Beauty bias is another form of unconscious bias. It occurs when someone is given preferential treatment because their physical appearance is deemed more attractive than another's.

For example, your hiring team posts a job advertisement, and following the interview process, they narrow the talent pool down to two candidates. Whilst one is more qualified than the other, they're inclined to hire the more attractive one.

To avoid beauty bias in the workplace, you could implement a blind hiring process, where recruiting managers are unable to view job applicants':

  • Name
  • Age.
  • Race
  • Sex.

This then allows your hiring team to make a judgement on their application, rather than their appearance.

Affinity bias

Affinity bias - also known as similarity bias, is when we show an affinity for - or prefer people who share similarities with ourselves. For example, recruiting managers might show a preference for hiring job applicants similar to them, such as being the same gender.

This might also include an individual's:

  • Physical appearance.
  • Life experiences.
  • Hobbies and similar interests.
  • Educational background.

To avoid affinity bias at work, your recruiting managers should actively seek diversity within their job advertisements. For example, using inclusive language, such as not referring to a specific gender by using gender-neutral pronouns.

This will encourage more people from a variety of backgrounds to apply, and ultimately create a more diverse talent pool.

What are the consequences of unconscious bias in the workplace?

There are several consequences of unconscious bias occurring in your workplace, such as increasing the risk of discrimination.

Let's take a look at these consequences in more detail.


Whilst unconscious bias often occurs outside of our conscious awareness, it can still have adverse effects on others. In fact, it could create an environment where discriminatory behaviour is ignored.

For example, a construction company decides to only hire male applicants. They reject job applications from women as they believe they may not fit into the company culture. This is considered discrimination, as the reason for not hiring females is directly related to their gender.

If your business has similar practices, applicants could raise a discrimination claim against you at an employment tribunal. Ultimately, you could face financial and reputational damages - which is why you should prevent this from occurring.

Limited applicant pool

Another consequence of unconscious bias in the workplace is that it can create problems with recruitment. If your hiring team has implicit bias, it might limit your applicant pool when recruiting.

For example, your recruiting managers use gender-specific language in their job advertisements. And because of this, only people of one gender apply for the role.

As a result of the language used, certain candidates may feel discouraged from applying. And you could potentially lose out on some top talent.

Poor company culture

Unconscious bias could also create a poor company culture within your business. If your staff has implicit bias, it might discourage them from working collaboratively.

For example, you hire a foreign employee. But, your staff has unconscious bias and are reluctant to work with them. Because of your new employee's accent, your other team members believe they're a bad communicator. Despite being a hard worker, the new employee is isolated from the team.

This can create a poor company culture because staff struggle to work in a team, and fail to make relationships with others different to themselves. Consequently, some of your employees dread attending work as their colleagues fail to bond with them.

How to combat unconscious bias in the workplace

There are several ways you can combat and address unconscious bias in the workplace. For example, you can provide resources that inform staff about what unconscious bias is and how to prevent it.

Let's discuss some other ways you can combat unconscious bias at work.

Implement unconscious bias training

One way you can address unconscious bias in the workplace is to provide training sessions to staff on the subject. This is important as it can help staff (and faculty members) recognise when they are making assumptions based on their own life experiences.

You might request staff to take training sessions to increase their awareness of unconscious bias. For example, you could ask them to take an Implicit Association Test (IAT) - which is an assessment that reveals an individual's implicit bias.

An IAT can be a useful tool to demonstrate to employees how their own opinions and biases affect the people around them. Once they recognise the assumptions they make, they can begin to address and challenge them.

Create a more inclusive recruitment process

Another way you can combat implicit bias at work is to create a more inclusive recruitment process. Having a hiring procedure that doesn't allow bias to occur will not only prevent discrimination claims to a tribunal, but also expose you to new talent.

For instance, your recruitment team reforms their hiring process. This prevents them from comparing candidates with assumptions based on their personal experiences. For example, you might request they ask all applicants the same questions to ensure a fairer procedure.

Taking steps such as the above will widen the perimeters of your applicant pool, because more people will feel encouraged to apply for a role within your business. As a result, you'll attract more candidates from a variety of backgrounds.

Set goals for your workplace

You can also combat unconscious bias and implicit prejudice by setting goals for your workplace. These can be goals for your overall business, or individual ones for each staff member. For example, you might set a goal to promote diversity and inclusion at work.

To do this, you could host workshops that demonstrate the importance of having diverse teams within your company. In your staff's performance evaluations, you could set them the goal of challenging their biases, as well as challenging those who project implicit prejudice at work.

It might seem awkward to ask your employees to challenge the way their brain processes information. But in the end, it will help your company create a workplace culture fit for everyone.

Get expert advice on unconscious bias from Peninsula

Unconscious bias affects us all, so ensure you do everything you reasonably can to prevent it in your workplace. This might mean training staff to recognise the associations between two concepts, or reforming job applications within your business.

Failure to overcome unconscious bias in the workplace could mean staff experience discrimination. As a result, they could raise a discrimination claim against you at an employment tribunal.

Peninsula offers expert advice on unconscious bias. Our teams provide 24/7 HR advice which is available 365 days a year. We take care of everything when you work with our HR experts.

Want to find out more? Contact us on 0800 028 2420 and book a free consultation with an HR consultant today.

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