Experts in top team and board consulting, training and development
The News
Posted on 11th January 2023
Unconscious bias – the blind spot threatening organisational performance

Unconscious bias affects our views of competence and influence hiring, promoting and developing talent. It’s time we became more aware.

Unconscious bias is a ‘blind spot’ created in our minds by making rapid judgments and assessments about other people and situations without fully realising we’re doing so.

It’s shaped by our own socialisation experiences, which can include your upbringing and cultural environment at a very early age, which in turn influences feelings and attitudes we exhibit towards others.

Sometimes these judgements are based on our beliefs about issues such as race, ethnicity, age, appearance and accent to name a few. During our first steps into socialisation we develop specific frames of reference, called ‘implicit social cognition.’

These frames go on to shape our understanding of the world around us, our own place in it and the people we encounter.

All of these factors help us create both positive and negative mindsets towards other people, things, groups and ideas at a mostly unconscious level.

Known and unknown bias
It is essential to distinguish unconscious bias from known biases, which people usually conceal for fear of being politically inappropriate.

Both positive and negative unconscious bias creates unintentional discrimination, leading to poor decision-making, which becomes a barrier to the creation of a truly diverse and inclusive workplace.

Our unconscious biases affect our perceptions of competence and effectiveness when hiring, and promoting and developing people’s talent in the workplace.

Unconscious bias can sometimes become rooted in an organisation’s policies, structures and everyday work practices, shaping the company’s culture if left unchecked. For example, a rule that allows some employees to work from home can be seen as underperforming by others.

Other forms of hidden prejudice include affinity bias, which represents a tendency to act more warmly towards people who look, sound and behave like we do, while the halo effect is a tendency to think everything about a person is positive because we like them.

In addition, perception bias is the inclination to stereotype certain groups without being able to make objective decisions about them, and conformity bias leads us to search for or interpret information that confirms our existing perceptions, or lean towards groupthink decision-making.

Bias in performance evaluation can result in higher compensation costs undeserving individuals. Whilst indirect costs relate to the difficulty of making important decisions based on performance ratings and the impact of incentives on motivation.

All of these factors impact recruitment, succession, promotion and performance appraisals, and unconscious bias in the workplace denies many opportunities for diversity, sharing different ideas, and embracing creativity that ultimately affect the bottom line.

How can companies hire without bias?
Although unconscious bias is difficult to eliminate, it can be considerably reduced.

The first step is raising people’s awareness through the provision of training to minimise unconscious bias. There are also a number of online assessments and training exercises, such as the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT), which offers several checks to assess a person’s bias towards age, gender, race, religion and disability IAT’s, and even Facebook training.

There are also many tools and techniques available to help reduce the impact of unconscious bias.

These include anonymising candidate data using pre-employment tests, sourcing tools or applicant tracking systems (ATS). Similarly, drawing on skills assessment tests, reviews of the interview process or fully-automated recruitment can help minimise bias from the outset.

Incorporating diversity into your organisation’s core value set is an excellent signal that the business is serious about minimising bias.

Job descriptions and interview panels
Recruitment practices can hide unconscious bias in candidate recruitment, applicant reviews, interviews and selection.

Revising the candidate pool through improved search and advocacy can help achieve fairer applicant recruitment. Additionally, actively increasing the number of candidates across different demographics helps reduce unconscious bias within the candidate pool.

Reworking job descriptions and eliminating gender, age and, where possible, disability restrictions is also a good start. The interview process can be significantly upgraded using of stringent standardised criteria and appropriate interviewer training.

The use of standardised interviews, rather than unstructured candidate discussion alongside diversity goals is another method of helping minimise unconscious bias in recruitment.

Overall, the proactive improvement of recruitment strategies can decrease biases in a rational, step-by-step fashion.

However, organisations must realise that sustaining bias minimisation is an uphill battle. Research and practice show that maintaining a gender and racial bias-free environment is hardly inevitable, and relapses are common.

Accountability to reduce bias
Despite setbacks, organisations that use accountability as their primary strategy for discouraging biased decision-making can significantly minimise unconscious bias.

For high-discretion C-suite decisions, organisations striving to reduce the inherent tension in bias focus on alignment, rather than a suppression of bias.

For example, those with decision-making authority often share the interests and values the organisation wants to maximise with a particular decision. As a result, when people inevitably make decisions that reflect their own interests or views, they will align with the prevailing values of the organisation.

Given the organisation’s principles, specifically assigning decision-making tasks and roles may enable a better match between decision-makers and the choices they will tend to make. Ultimately organisations need to have diversity as one of their core living values.