Monday 18 April 2016 2:30 am

Unconscious bias: What it is and why you should do something about it

Tom Welsh is City A.M.'s business features editor.

Tom Welsh is City A.M.'s business features editor.

The issue of unconscious bias is featuring increasingly prominently in the thinking of leading organisations when it comes to their company culture, people management strategies, and how they formulate their policies and procedures. But what exactly is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias describes those prejudices each of us inherently has which exist outside of our conscious awareness. Many of these prejudices are rooted in the most primitive part of the brain (sometimes referred to as “the Reptilian Brain”), which is heavily focused upon safety and survival. So from this perspective at least, mentally grouping people and characteristics into good or bad categories helps the brain to make quick decisions in relation to our perceived safety.

But the fact that unconscious bias is hard-wired into our brains makes it very difficult to eliminate or to minimise its influence. For example, unconscious bias may affect our thoughts and behaviour in relation to race, colour, gender, age, disability, accent or socio-economic background. Often these underlying biases can be at odds with our perceived conscious beliefs about various groups within society. And these biases can prompt us to make decisions which favour one group over another.

So unconscious bias is a fact of human experience for each of us. This means that it inevitably permeates the workplace at every level. For instance, it can hamper diversity, recruitment and retention strategies, and shape the culture of an organisation. It can also affect who gets hired, promoted, and developed within an organisation, as well as influencing any talent or performance reviews.

Still not convinced that unconscious bias is at play in your organisation? One survey conducted among Fortune 500 companies revealed that the average chief executive is six feet tall while only 14.5 per cent of the male population are actually that height. By a similar token, it is estimated that women currently only hold about 23.5 per cent of FTSE 100 directorships.

What you have to gain from addressing it

The potential benefits of addressing unconscious bias can be broken down into three key areas:

Best practice

  • It can help you to better identify the obstacles to attracting talent from a wider recruitment pool.
  • It encourages higher levels of employee engagement among individuals that may otherwise feel disenfranchised.

Risk management

  • It can enable fairer and more appropriate decision-making on areas such salaries, promotions, and staff development.
  • It can identify and address issues of imbalance within specific teams or the overall company culture.
  • It can highlight those employees who might benefit from coaching to help them recognise and address their biases, and to align them more readily with the behaviours championed by the organisation.


  • It imbues an organisation with a competitive advantage, by identifying situations where an over or under-representation of a particular group of people within it may be impacting upon growth or profitability.
  • It can assist in determining how to reform parts of an organisation traditionally affected by high staff turnover rates.

In providing proper awareness training, and putting processes and structures in place that identify unconscious bias, organisations can take affirmative steps to mitigate some of the unhelpful influences which can impact upon every aspect of the organisation.