How unconscious bias can impact diversity

by esphr
Unconscious bias

An increasing number of organisations are making inclusion and diversity a key part of their agendas, writes ESP Law senior solicitor Helena Wheeler.

Social justice has long been a driver for inclusive businesses to promote and foster diversity within their workforce. There is now also a better understanding of the business case for making such ideals central to core organisational values and ethos. 

McKinsey research has shown that companies have increasingly begun to regard inclusion and diversity as a source of competitive advantage, and specifically as a key enabler of growth. However, they report that progress on diversification initiatives has been slow.

One possible explanation is a lack of understanding of unconscious bias, how it can impede absolute inclusivity and in doing so, thwart efforts to achieve and maintain a truly diverse workforce.

What is unconscious bias?

To understand unconscious bias, it is important to appreciate that it is a natural human behaviour. Humans are programmed to survive. As such, the brain continuously assesses the world around us – processing visual, behavioural and verbal signs and signals, using them to assess danger, risk and opportunity.

This assessment includes an appraisal of the people we come into contact with. It is an innate process which helps us to determine whether someone might be friendly or hostile, honest or untrustworthy, helpful or damaging.  

People then, unwittingly, pre-judge and often categorise according to the automatic assessment – using that categorisation to inform behaviours. For instance, the style of verbal and physical language used to greet and interact with people, and a conformity with social norms is driven by this assessment. 

Unfortunately, the process can lead to unconscious bias – where a person favours people who, for instance, look like them or share the same values and ideals. For example, a person may be drawn to someone with the same accent, ethnicity, interests, work or social background as them. 

A further possible consequence is what is known as ‘the halo effect’. This is where a positive trait is transferred onto a person without anything really being known about them. For example, someone tall and imposing – with good posture, composure, and wearing a business suit – may be seen as capable in a work environment. Someone with a regional accent may be interpreted as kind. Another who talks quickly may be assessed as efficient or busy.

What are the negative implications of unconscious bias?

Everyone has unconscious biases and unfortunately, they can be based on stereotypes and prejudices that people may not even realise they have. It is important to be aware of unconscious bias and the negative and exclusive effect it can have on decisions in recruitment, promotion, staff development and recognition. 

If ignored, it can lead to the cyclical effect of the same apparent ‘types’ of people being promoted and recruited and, in turn, lead to a less diverse workforce. Employers can overlook talented workers and instead favour those who share their own characteristics or views.

Where unconscious bias is against a protected characteristic, it can be discriminatory. For example, if during a recruitment process an employer overlooks a candidate who is a different gender or race to them and appoints someone who is the same gender or race, this could be discriminatory.

Ensuring unconscious bias doesn’t jeopardise a quest for diversity

Workplace ‘Unconscious Bias Training’ (UBT) can teach participants and help to reduce the negative impact of bias on the organisation’s diversity and inclusion agenda.  

Clearly, if successful, it can also help to reduce ingrained institutional and individual instances of unlawful discrimination. It teaches participants about the disproportionately negative impact of biases on people with protected characteristics, such as women or ethnic minorities.

The aim is to educate people about the existence of unconscious bias and to make people think about their own unconscious biases.

The training should explore prejudices relating to all protected characteristics and encourage people to think about – and understand – people who are different from themselves.

It should encourage people to question the language they use, challenge individuals to question themselves on how they promote people, who gets allocated the work, the makeup of workgroups, how they recruit, who they recruit and where from. It should include senior decision-makers and encourage them to analyse the infrastructure of the organisation and the systems in place which may put barriers in place for certain people. 

Unconscious bias can lead to bullying, harassment, discrimination, people feeling excluded, being less productive and unengaged. It impacts upon recruitment decisions, employee development, impairs diversity and negatively affects staff retention rates.

Therefore, it is important for organisations to address unconscious bias in order to develop and maintain an inclusive workforce. Developing genuine awareness of how unconscious bias operates, and ways to overcome it, is essential to promoting a genuinely diverse workplace.


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