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Unconscious bias

Editor's note to readers

Welcome to this edition of Human Capital Matters (HCM)—the digest for leaders and practitioners with an interest in human capital and organisational capability. Human Capital Matters seeks to provide Australian Public Service leaders and practitioners with easy access to the issues of contemporary importance in public and private sector human capital and organisational capability. It has been designed to provide interested readers with a guide to the national and international ideas that are shaping human capital thinking and practice. The inclusion of articles is aimed at stimulating creative and innovative thinking and does not in any way imply that the Australian Public Service Commission endorses service providers or policies. It is intended that the articles are accessible for the general reader, do not require subscriptions to specific sites and, where possible and appropriate, editions of HCM have been reviewed by topic specialists to provide range and currency on topical issues.

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This edition looks at unconscious bias.

The Australian Public Service Commission (the Commission) released Balancing the future: The Australian Public Service gender equality strategy 2016-19 (the Strategy) in April 2016.

The Strategy states explicitly that:

The principle of merit remains central to APS employment. The strategy aims to create an environment in which merit is applied properly and fairly. This will be achieved through reportable targets, the removal of barriers like hidden bias, and adopting work arrangements that balance choice with operational requirements.

Thus unconscious or hidden bias is put clearly at the forefront of APS concerns for ensuring a fair and meritorious public service. Specifically the Strategy notes that implicit, hidden or unconscious bias is a barrier in regard to women's advancement within the APS.

The Commission is not alone in thinking of unconscious bias as a causal factor in regard to gender inequity. Nor is unconscious bias a recent discovery. The Commission produced a HCM on the topic in 2012. As well, many public sector agencies are actively educating staff to be aware of and take steps to mitigate hidden bias.

Most current HR and employment literature, taking a cue from academia, report unconscious bias as a fact of life, unconsciously contributing to unintended discrimination. Most of the available material suggests unconscious bias has an evolutionary basis. It is a way of processing vast amounts of information and making quick decisions. It served our ancestors well in facing 'fight or flight' decision moments. It is something we don't have a lot of control over. Thus there is a need to be aware of and take steps to mitigate implicit discrimination in our thinking generally and in our professional practices.

How best to address unconscious bias is the focus of this edition of HCM. There are articles which will report on the definition and measurement of bias and which identify its impact in the workplace. Some examples about how to mitigate the effects of unconscious bias will also be provided.

List of articles:

The first article published by the Australian National University uses the terms 'unconscious' and 'hidden' bias interchangeably. It provides a definition, describes types of bias and gives an overview of some of the literature with particular reference to the higher education sector.

The second article is from the Program Director of the University of North Carolina's (UNC), Kenan-Flagler Business School – Executive Development programme. It builds on work done by Todd Henneman in 2014 in identifying that bias is a matter of survival from the brain's perspective. Its affect in the workplace, regardless of its origins, is discussed by the author.

The third article is an academic paper detailing the benefits of employing a specific behavioural intervention to mitigate the effects of unconscious bias. This 'implementation intention' technique has been cited in various articles as a potential intervention.

In summary, the key aspects evident from the literature about unconscious bias are:

  • Unconscious bias is an automatic, coping-related response for everybody
  • Key mitigation techniques include education in awareness and identification of 'mind bugs' or hidden biases
  • A proven mitigation is employing intentional intervention behaviours so that automatic responses are identified, considered and purposely or 'mindfully' modified

The fourth article is an abridged version of a research report from the Corporate Leadership Council/CEB from 2016. The goal for this research was to provide examples and start discussion about norms in diversity and inclusion and combatting bias. The CEB's Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council contacted organisations at random via phone and according to a pre-determined list of characteristics. The organisations represent a range of industries with revenues varying from $22 billion (USD) to more than $58 billion (USD) with at least over 1,000 employees.

Australian National University. (2015). 'Unconscious bias'. [Website accessed 8 June 2016].

In an article updated in September, 2015, unconscious or hidden bias was defined as 'a normal human prejudice' about people or groups of people. It happens automatically and is triggered by our making quick assessments of people and situations based on our own background, culture and personal experiences. Often people refer to 'first impressions' and intuitions about others, which are ways of expressing unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is considered to be outside our control though we can take steps to mitigate its effects.

Within a possible 150 different types of bias, the common ones are:

  • in-group/outgroup: the tendency to give preferential treatment to others perceived as members of one's own group (may also be known as affinity bias – warming to others perceived to be like ourselves)

  • confirmation bias: the tendency to seek out and remember information that supports initial impressions
  • halo effect: the tendency to think everything about a person is good (or bad) because you like (or dislike) that person (McCormack, 2015)
  • stereotyping: the tendency to expect that because someone belongs to a group they have certain characteristics
  • status-quo: the tendency to like things to stay the same without too much disruption
  • group attribution: the tendency to attribute one individual's characteristics as reflecting the characteristics of the group
  • group think: when people try to fit in by mimicking or holding back thoughts and opinions, causing organisations to lose out on creativity and innovation (Price, n.d. as reported in McCormack 2015)

Tips for managing unconscious bias at a personal level are suggested: question the basis for thoughts and feelings and reflect about whether there might be alternative explanations. The article also suggests that alternative options and outcomes be considered.

Bias may also be mitigated by ensuring diverse representation on selection panels and, in regard to staffing, having in place detailed policies and management systems.

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McCormack, H., (2015). The Real Effects of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace. Kenan-Flagler Business School Executive Development, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC

McCormack's starting premise is that everyone harbours unconscious biases even when they explicitly believe that prejudice and discrimination are wrong (Henneman 2014). Consequently we all take our stereotypes and expectations into the workplace. At work, unconscious bias 'can stymie diversity, recruiting and retention efforts and unknowingly shape an organization's culture. (I)t can skew talent and performance reviews … (and) affects who gets hired, promoted and developed … unwittingly undermining an organization's culture'.

McCormick discusses the evolutionary purpose of unconscious bias, provides examples of it in the workplace, explores its impact, provides steps to mitigate its effects and discusses organisational case studies.

The evolutionary 'advantage' of bias is seen to be its role in helping the brain quickly organise information often in terms of good or bad, threatening or benign, safe or unsafe. It is a survival mechanism and therefore difficult to eliminate or minimise.

McCormack provides case studies from Google, the Royal Bank of Canada and Roche Diagnostics. Mitigation tactics used by these large organisations include: awareness raising (Google, Royal bank of Canada and Roche Diagnostics); a mentoring programme to help women into middle management positions (Roche); a boost in maternity and paternity benefits to attract diverse candidates (Roche); and, administration of the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT) developed in 1998 (Royal Bank of Canada).

The IAT is a self-administered survey which 'tests' biases such as male-female, tall-short, ethnicity, fat-thin. The results, based on comparisons with appropriate groups, are available immediately to the test taker and allow for personal ownership and reflection, rather than public scrutiny. The test uses reactions time taken to pair images with positively/negatively associated words like 'good' or 'bad'. It is common for people to take longer to associate images for which we may have a negative bias (e.g., short, fat, female) with a positive word. The test helps us to assess what our blind spots are and to understand that taking time to make a considered decision can help mitigate discriminatory behaviour. Bias, whatever its origins, does not have to result in discrimination.

Using the case studies, McCormack recommends awareness raising as a start to combating unconscious bias. He also suggests labelling the types of bias likely to occur and creating structures or processes to slow down quick assessments and facilitate considered decision-making. Examples of structures and processes include allowing for more deliberation, giving others an opportunity to comment, stripping identifying information from resumes and using standardised interview questions.

McCormack' article builds on work reported by Todd Henneman in 2014 . Unfortunately this is not available on-line.

Henneman reports on the well-known 2012 study at Columbia University in which hiring decisions among the 'hard' sciences were explored. Professors were given applications identical in every way except for the applicant's sex. Young, old, male and female professors all rated the 'male' applicant as more competent compared to the 'female' applicant. The male applicant was offered a higher starting salary and more mentoring than the female applicant.

Henneman reports on work done by Mahzarin Banaji a social psychologist at Harvard University and one of the Project Implicit team responsible for the Implicit Association Test. Banaji sees the problem of unconscious bias as the lack of awareness of blind spots or 'mind bugs' as she calls them. This can be partially addressed by discovering personal biases, using the IAT and any other forms of feedback, in regard to perceiving or assessing others. Chubb and Pricewaterhouse Coopers are two large organisations that have used Banaji's work to help promote diversity among their leaders.

While using the IAT and becoming more aware are considered commendable ways to start addressing discrimination, a weakness has been identified in that there is no evidence so far about how effectively self-awareness produces change. How to reverse unconscious bias is the current challenge for organisations and leaders.

Henneman reports that Andres Tapia, a senior partner in Korn Ferry's leadership and talent division has adopted a three-step approach to modifying tendencies to unconscious bias: learning about it, building skills around cultural dexterity and creating a culture that builds on the strengths of differences.

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Gollwitzer, P.M., & Sheeran, P. Implementation Intentions and Goal Achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 38 (2006), pp 69-119

This article was a seminal piece of research which resulted in 'tips' in various articles about ways to address unconscious bias.

The research was prompted by the idea that 'holding a strong goal intention (e.g., "I will not discriminate') does not guarantee goal achievement, because people fail to deal effectively with self-regulatory problems during goal striving.' That is, a strong end-goal lacks the behavioural steps about how to achieve the desired end-result. The authors set out to test whether goal intentions could be enhanced by implementing a plan—an implementation intention plan—that spells out the when, where and how to achieve a goal.

The formula of an implementation intention is a prescriptive set of behaviours that a person sets to address gaps or to achieve goals. Underpinning that intention is an awareness that certain situations will present in which automatic responses are best overridden to achieve new behavioural responses and enable goal attainment: 'if (situation …), then I will …'

The authors concluded that an implementation plan enhanced achievement of goals and that these positive effects were evident over time. This suggests that we can discipline ourselves to adopt alternative behaviours when faced with situations that usually provoke old habits/biases.

This has been used by various organisations to combat unconscious bias. For example, the Aurora Leadership Foundation's tip-sheet on 'Understanding the impact of unconscious bias' suggests that we can consciously correct for bias by having good quality policies and practices to provide guidance, raising awareness of bias (Aurora also promotes the use of the IAT) and developing a more mindful approach to key decisions including using the implementation intention principle—e.g., 'If I see a (short/fat/female/black) applicant, then I will (e.g., review/grade their application strictly according to the selection criteria)'. The Aurora reports on 'validated research' in which people directed to employ the implementation intention principle to ignore the colour of an applicant's skin demonstrated no prejudice in their assessment of the candidate.

Oxford University's Learning Institute also reports using the implementation intention technique as a way of minimising discrimination.

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CEB Diversity and Inclusion White Paper (2016). Empowering HRBPs to Combat Bias. Corporate Leadership Council.

The research report from the CEB's Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council shares peer benchmarks and experiences across three questions (taken directly from the website):

  1. What information and support do organizations currently provide Human Resources Business Partners (HRBPs) in combatting bias across their day-to-day responsibilities?
  2. What information and support do organizations currently provide HRBPs in combatting bias during talent reviews and succession conversations?
  3. How are organizations specifically adapting talent review and succession processes to reduce bias?

Findings are summarised as follows:

All surveyed organizations have already provided or plan to provide general support to HRBPs on mitigating bias on the job, and only 7% of surveyed organizations have no plans to provide this type of support specific to talent reviews and succession conversations.

Organizations have introduced several initiatives with an explicit focus on combatting bias on the job with varied delivery methods, including introducing workplace bias training, dedicated diversity-related performance objectives, and ready-made questionnaires and templates.

Organizations are using multiple strategies before, during, and after talent review and succession conversations to combat bias.

All organizations recognize the difficulty of managing inherently subjective processes where one person is evaluating another, especially when that individual judgment can both strengthen and weaken an evaluation. As a result, current bias strategies generally focus on standardizing processes, establishing accountability, and defining expectations that guide, but aren't overly restrictive for, talent processes.

With specific regard to talent reviews HRBPs are being encouraged to take a more facilitative role in challenging assertions made by managers. In some organisations HRBPs have been provided with ready-made questions 'to productively uncover sources of bias during … discussions'. Example questions given are:

  • What other candidates have you considered for this position?
  • What attributes, skills, and experiences make this individual more qualified for this position than his or her peers? In what areas is this individual less qualified?
  • How has this individual demonstrated an understanding of our diverse customer base?
  • Have you considered how this individual is similar to or different from past individuals you have supported for promotion? How have those individuals performed since we discussed them, and do you think we missed any areas during our discussion of them?
  • Playing devil's advocate based on the decision we're discussing, what would your argument be in supporting or not supporting this individual for promotion?
  • Have you considered any potential confounding factors that could have influenced this individual's strengths or weaknesses?
  • Is your evaluation based on the quality of this individual's decision at the time it was made or on the eventual outcome?
  • What peer group are you comparing this individual to? Are you evaluating this person relative to their true peers, or perhaps a more junior or senior sample, for example?
  • What information do you feel is missing and potentially preventing you from making a decision? Could we realistically get this information on this candidate in the future?
  • If this candidate questioned our promotion decision, what would your feedback to him or her be? Are there any development opportunities this individual needs that our decision today would prevent him or her from getting?


1 Henneman, Todd. "You Biased, No it's your Brain". Workforce, 9 Feb, 2014. [Article accessed 8 June 2016 but now unavailable]

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018