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What is unconscious bias?

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What is unconscious bias?

  • What is unconscious bias?

    There are numerous similar definitions of unconscious bias but they are all putting the same message across. According to the Equality Challenge Unit, “implicit or unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgements and assessments of people and situations without us realising. Our biases are influenced by our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences. We may not even be aware of these views and opinions, or be aware of their full impact and implications.”

    In what situations do we come across unconscious bias day to day?

    This sub topic is so broad, I am going to narrow it down by talking about what I know – recruitment.

    First of all, let’s outline the typical recruitment process for a recruitment agency.

    At which point in the processes above do you think unconscious bias starts? Step three maybe? Wrong. Unconscious bias occurs right from the first step.

    As soon as a recruiter is recommended or referred a candidate, we can immediately experience unconscious bias. “They must be good as Joe/Marie because I know and respect Joe/Marie and they have recommended this candidate to me”.

    Similarly, looking through our own network, unconscious bias can occur. In my opinion, the eight most common are as follows:

    - Conformity Bias – bias caused by peer pressure, whereby an individual will scrap their own opinion to favour the group’s opinion. 

    - Beauty bias – bias based around physical attributes, i.e. the most beautiful or handsome individual is best for the job.

    - Affinity bias – bias that occurs when we discover an apparent similarity.

    - Halo effect – bias that occurs when we see one great specific about a person and let that significant specific affect our opinions of everything else about that person.

    - Horns effect – (opposite to the halo effect) bias that occurs when we see one bad specific about a person, which then clouds our opinions of all their other attributes.

    - Similarity bias – bias that occurs when someone is similar to us

    - Contrast effect – bias that occurs when comparing applicants to one another

    - Confirmation bias – bias that occurs when making a quick judgement about another person, and subconsciously looking for evidence to back up our own opinions about that person.

    What decisions does unconscious bias affect in the workplace?

    - Levels of diversity, impacting on innovation and creativity

    - Recruiting efforts and hiring decisions

    - Mentoring decisions

    - Training opportunities

    - Promotional decisions

    - Listening to people’s ideas and suggestions

    If left unchecked, at its most extreme, unconscious bias can develop into discrimination. We all know that types of unconscious bias are constantly floating around the workplace. It is relatively easy to identify with the right tools (as described above) but is it as easy to overcome?

    How do you overcome unconscious bias during the recruitment process and in the workplace?

    During the recruitment process

    Everyone makes judgments about others based on stereotypes and unconscious bias. Actions based on this judgement process are not generally or typically malicious but they can negatively impact a business on many levels - chief among them is the ability to hire diverse talent. 

    In my opinion, some unconscious bias in the workplace is inevitable. There are, however, a number of processes that companies can and do implement across the globe in order to reduce the unwanted effects of this bias.

    Blind recruitment

    From my own experience, a lot of my clients remove photos and names from job applications – also known as blind recruitment. Organisations including Deloitte, HSBC, BBC and Clifford Chance use this method. The idea of this is to not only to overcome unconscious bias, but also to promote diversity in the workforce.

    The significance of blind recruitment is proven by recent research. For example, according to Fast Company & Co, a series of studies have shown that people with ethnic names needed to send out 50% more applications before they received a call back than people with “white” sounding names.

    Blind recruitment has also been introduced across the Civil Service. “By removing the candidate’s name and other personal information, such as their nationality or the university they attended, we aim to ensure that people will be judged on merit and not on their background, race or gender” (John Manzoni, Chief Executive & Permanent Secretary for the Cabinet Office).

    Of course, blind recruitment needs to be tailored to each organisation and it may not work for everyone. There could be, for instance, different levels of blind recruitment – some organisations may only want to remove the information where they have identified a bias they wish to eradicate, whereas other businesses may remove all information at application level including name, age or date of birth, education and even company names.

    Rework job descriptions

    According to research conducted by KPMG, if men look at a role profile and they have 20% of the skills needed for the job, they will apply. On the other hand, if women don't have 20% of the skills required they will not apply. 

    Subtle word choices can impact on the application pool. I personally attended a seminar last year at the DiveIn Festival with Kate Headley (Director, The Clear Company) and Paul Awcock (Head of Talent, Lloyds of London) where we looked at how job descriptions were worded and had a round table discussion.

    It was clear that companies need to eliminate emotionally loaded adjectives such as competitive, determined (known to attract more men) or collaborative, cooperative (known to attract more women) in order to reduce gender bias among potential applicants.

    Work sample tests

    A skill test forces employers to critique the quality of a candidate’s work versus unconsciously judging them based on appearance, gender, age, and even personality (Iris Bohnet, Harvard Kennedy School).

    Standardise interviews

    Structure interviews, where each candidate is asked the same set of defined questions, allowing employers to “focus on the factors that have a direct impact on performance” (Iris Bohnet, Harvard Kennedy School).

    Identify and score likeability

    Ensure that you recognise the importance of the unconscious bias resulting from how much you like a candidate on a personal level, and allow consciously for that bias in your hiring assessment, possibly by a scoring system.

    Talk about unconscious bias with those who will be hiring

    Recognise unconscious bias in your workplace, talk about it, offer training to counter its effects so that during the hiring process its potential negative affect can be minimised.

    In the workplace

    - Train employees appropriately – to identify their own unconscious biases. They can then learn how to manage these effectively.

    - Label the types of bias that are likely to occur - By labelling the possible biases and bringing them to the conscious level, leaders and employees will become more aware of how their biases affect decision making, hiring, promotions, compensation, and organizational culture

    - Create structures – for activities including decision making, CV screening and interview formats. This will allow purposeful actions, and give peers the opportunity to point out times when unconscious biases may be appearing

    An understanding of unconscious bias is an invitation to a new level of engagement about diversity issues. It requires awareness, introspection, authenticity, humility, and compassion. And most of all, it requires communication and a willingness to act.

    I was speaking to Kate Headley (Director, The Clear Company) who explained “it is impossible to remove bias entirely from the process, the important step is to learn how to recognise our biases and manage them effectively. Blind CV’s can be effective at reducing bias at the shortlisting stage but the untrained interviewer will simply reintroduce this at interview. The most effective way to ensure an inclusive and objective recruitment process is to set our clear, defensible and measurable criteria, train your managers on how to apply this and always, always, look for the evidence to support your decision making.”

    What do Broadgate Search do as a business to overcome unconscious bias?

    As a recruitment business, there are two ways that we need to look at unconscious bias – when hiring candidates in to our business, and when recruiting for our clients. Firstly, as a business we provide internal training to all new recruits, which is led by myself (D&I Ambassador) and Ashley Lawrence, one of the directors here. Our main aim when providing the training is to make them aware of unconscious bias during the recruitment process so we can best advise our clients on how to attract the best calibre and pool of candidates. 

    Secondly when recruiting for our clients, particularly around the awareness of gender bias we have a gender decoder that we run our adverts through that picks up any wordings that may be bias. Although most of our applications come through referrals, this is a good measure to have in place to ensure a more balanced array of candidates.

    Finally, I thought worthy to mention from my own experience in the recruitment process that when flexible and/or remote working is supported in a role, more women will apply. I personally have two examples where my clients have been flexible to allow parents to leave work slightly earlier in the day to get to school (for example) to pick up their children. This makes a huge difference and actually I found the degree of non-flexibility turns out to be a deal breaker for candidates when deciding whether or not to accept the role. Companies are realising that sometimes to secure the best talent, they must be flexible when it comes to working hours.


    As I have already indicated, it is part of the human condition to experience some unconscious bias – to form judgements based on personal preferences. This will, as I have shown, inevitably impact on hiring decisions and workplace culture. This bias with all its negative associations can be combatted and overcome. By discussion and training, by bringing unconscious bias out of the gloom and examining it in the light, it is possible to bring about change - in recruitment processes, hiring decisions and in the culture of the workplace. This is an aim worth striving for, both in the interests of the long-term growth and health of a company, and in the interests of current and future employees. 


    1. Identify potential candidate – this can be from a number of sources; for Broadgate Search in particular this will often be from our network, or from a referral

    2. Contact potential candidate and arrange an initial face to face meeting to discuss options and how we can support them in their search for a role

    3. Conduct face to face meeting and pre-screen

    4. Obtain updated CV from potential candidate and outline in writing to the candidate which processes we are going to involve them in and when they will receive feedback/next steps

    5. Interview process (approx. between 1-4 stages)

    6. Offer and placement in new role

    • During the recruitment process, this could be either at the start of the recruitment process (i.e. looking at a CV) or right at the end of the process (i.e. when deciding who to offer the position to)

    • In recruitment specifically, it is common that recruiters will (or will be asked to) fill a role with someone who shares similar physical attributes to the person who held that role previously, or who they think looks like the kind of person that should have the role based on their preconceived bias

    • This is extremely common during the recruitment process, eg “we attended the same university, they must be good!” Or grew up in the same town, or remind us of someone we know, and like

    • An example of this could be, when looking at someone’s CV, seeing a particularly high grade from a particular university and then judging everything else about that person in the reflected glow of that achievement

    • An example of this would be if, during an interview, the candidate speaks slowly, or too quickly. Views may also be clouded if a potential candidate got a bad grade at school or university; the hiring manager may be reluctant to interview for that reason alone, despite other positive attributes

    • During the recruitment process, this could mean that we are more open to someone who has a similarity to us

    • During the recruitment process, it is common to judge whether or not the person in front of us did as well as the person that came in before them, when really the only question that should matter is – does this particular person have the specific skills and attributes that are required for the job?

    • The danger of this during the recruitment process is that people’s own judgement could be very wrong (because of other unconscious biases) and could cause someone not to get a job who in reality is very well suited to the role

    • The training can help employees to learn the core concepts and then run through various scenarios like how to avoid bias when reviewing resumes. Leaders at PricewaterhouseCoopers also go through awareness training (Henneman, 2014)

    • Chubb also offer awareness training