Understanding and Addressing Unconscious Bias In The Workplace

Unconscious bias is the innate human skill that enables us to quickly process large amounts of information and draw conclusions and make judgements based on that information. In times of old this would have improved our chances of survival and helped us make decisions based on past experiences. In the modern work context it means we are more likely to make decisions about recruitment, and promotion based on innate prejudices and deeply harboured biases we may not even be aware of.

It’s not realistic to expect workplaces to entirely eradicate unconscious bias from their recruitment practices, however taking steps to address the fact it exists, understanding the consequences of ignoring it and putting in place a plan to mitigate some of the effects of unconscious bias can drive great benefits to workplaces.

Howard J. Ross has written extensively about unconscious bias and says his research has shown that the limiting patters of unconscious behaviour are not limited to one group. Everyone has them and he says that even the most effective and successful business managers and leaders have to be able to identify their own unconscious bias before they can guide others in acknowledging and confronting theirs.

“Each one of us has some groups with which we unconsciously feel uncomfortable, even as we castigate others for feeling uncomfortable with our own groups. These conscious patters of discrimination are problematic, but again, they pale in comparison to the unconscious patterns that impact us every day. Unconscious perceptions govern many of the most important decisions we make and have a profound effect on the lives of many people in many ways…Unconscious patterns can play out in ways that are so subtle they are hard to spot,” said Mr Ross in his seminal article Proven Strategies for Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace.

Five simple strategies you can implement to address and reduce unconscious bias in the workplace

1. Admit biases are learned early and are counter to our commitment to fair and just treatment

Point out subtle stereotypes used by peers and in the media. Surround yourself with tools and cues that help remind yourself and others that equality matters and is hard work to achieve, If people are aware of their hidden biases they can monitor and attempt to ameliorate hidden attitudes before they are addresses through behaviour. This compensation can include attention to language, body language and to the stigmatization felt by target groups.

2. Create environments where different views are welcome

Think positively particularly about people of whom you were previously critical. Ask yourself: is your negative based on anything deeper than their overt behaviour? Are you misinterpreting their behaviour or attitude?

3. Build integrated teams

Create policies and cultures that require colleagues to treat each other with courtesy and professionalism. By including members of other groups in a task people can begin to think of themself as part of a larger community in which everyone has skills and can contribute. Such experiences have been shown to improve attitudes across racial and cultural lines among people of all ages and backgrounds.

4. Use your imagination

There is evidence that unconscious attitudes, contrary to initial expectations, may be malleable. For example imagining strong women leaders and seeing people from minority ethnic groups in executive roles has been shown to, at least temporarily, change unconscious biases. Using your imagination to create and frame a positive outcome can assist in uncovering new opportunities for progress.

5. Volunteer together

When people work together in a structured environment to solve shared problems through community service their attitudes to diversity can change dramatically.

Howard also advocates implementation of a number of pragmatic devices to actively address and prevent unconscious bias. These include:

  • A review of every aspect of the employment life cycle for hidden bias, this includes screening resumes, interviews, onboarding, assignment process, mentoring programs, performance evaluation, identification of high achievers, promotion and termination.
  • Anonymous third party complaint channels so employees who feel as though their complaints aren’t being addressed fairly have another avenue to explore.
  • Anonymous surveys of past and present employees to learn what biases exist in a workplace and how these could be addressed.
  • Resume studies to examine whether candidates with similar education and experience are weighted equally.
  • Support of workplace programs which increase diversity and create bridges to less well represented groups within the community.


Case Study: Commonwealth Bank of Australia

In Australia the Commonwealth Bank (CBA) has successfully started addressing some of the issues surrounding inherent bias and the resultant lack of workplace diversity through its Unconscious Bias Leadership Program.

This program was rolled out to CBA’s 2000 senior leaders and promoted greater understanding of the role these people play in promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace through their actions and behaviour. As a result of this program the CBA won an international Catalyst Award  in 2012.

Executive General Manager, Information Technology, Steve McGregor said many of the actions from the Unconscious Bias Leadership Program were simple and easy to implement once recognised and discussed.

“Ensuring diversity on interview panels and candidate pools, trialling blind CVs where cultural and gender references are removed from shortlisted CVs, recognising cultural days, and the distribution of bias help cards to all people managers have been effective in raising awareness and driving change,” he said.

Steve said it is important that managers drive the cultural changes by role modeling the desirable behaviours and holding people accountable for the required changes.

“Attracting female employees to traditionally male IT areas remains a challenge for us, one that we’re keen to go after.

We’ve implemented a number of initiatives internally and externally to strengthen our female talent pipeline. We sponsor women in IT events in high schools and universities, run mentoring programs for senior female leaders, track the application process for females applying for senior leadership roles, and ensure there are females on all interview panels, in line with our Appointment to Role policy,” he said.

Further reading

Commonwealth Bank wins coveted international gender diversity award

Why do we love tall men?

Proven Strategies for Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace


This Better Workplace Bulletin was first published in November 2014