Test Your Team’s Unconscious Bias


Unconscious bias at work can make people feel left out, that they are being treated unfavourably and even discriminated against. It can also limit the benefits of diversity in the workplace. These out­comes are often not intention­al, although having workplace processes that rely on human judge­ment, from recruitment through to performance management, runs the risk of perpetuating systemic bias and inequality.

The following article provides a practical introduction for employers, managers and HR personnel as to the meaning of unconscious bias, how this happens and the different types of bias. We also look at how you can test for hidden intolerances or prejudices within your team, including the types of questions that will be asked in a standard unconscious bias test in the UK.


What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias, otherwise known as implicit bias, is a term used to describe associations or assumptions that are outside our conscious awareness. It refers to unintended preferences or prejudices towards certain people based on the associations we have with particular characteristics, such as age, gender, sexuality, disability, ethnicity, body size and so on.

In many cases, this is because we are judging someone based on any visible difference, although unconscious bias can also arise because of associations based on, for example, someone’s religious identity, political affiliation or social and economic background.

The presence of unconscious bias means that we automatically respond to others, in either positive or negative ways, based on their appearance or certain other characteristics. This can influence what we think, the judgements we make, how we act and the perception we have of another person before we even get to know them. In many cases, we make assumptions about people because they’re not the same as us or because they’re like us.


Why does unconscious bias happen?

On average our brains work hard to process several million pieces of information per second, but only consciously capture and process a tiny fraction of these, meaning we are constantly taking shortcuts to fill in the blanks. Unconscious bias is an example of a shortcut our brain takes to make snap judgments about people before we even realise we have done so.

The brain’s ability to make snap decisions below the level of conscious thought is a primal instinct, designed to keep us out of harm’s way, such as the ability to distinguish friend from foe. However, the survival mechanism that allows us to function instinctively also leads to unconscious bias, where we make hasty and unfounded assumptions about people.

We all have biases which we uncon­scious­ly apply much of the time. This is the result of external influences shaped by our back­ground, upbring­ing and personal experiences. These experiences act as social filters in which we make assessments of the people around us.

For example, if we’re used to seeing male firefighters or female nurses, we may assume that these are inherently male or female roles, where these associations become wired within the human brain. Societal stereotypes can also arise through representations of different groups in the media, for example, we may be used to seeing heroes and villains on TV look a certain way, and unconsciously assume someone is either good or bad based on how they look.


What are the different types of unconscious bias?

Human beings have a natural propensity to place people into social categories. Categories give order to our lives, but can also create the foundation of stereotypes and prejudices, where the unconscious brain uses associations based on these categories to develop a number of different biases. One of the most common forms of unconscious bias is affinity bias, where everyone has deep subconscious preferences for people with similar characteristics.

Often referred to as ‘like me’ bias, affinity bias is where we favour someone, perhaps because they look like us or have a similar background to us. At the same time, this form of bias means that we may be less likely to seek bonds with those who are noticeably different to ourselves.

Other common forms of unconscious bias include confirmation bias, where we only listen to information that confirms and supports our pre-conceptions; anchor bias, where the mind anchors to the first piece of information that we’re given about a person; conformity bias, where our views are swayed too much by what other people think; and attribution bias, where we incorrectly evaluate the reasons behind the experiences and accomplishments of others.


How does unconscious bias impact the workplace?

When left unchal­lenged, unconscious bias can have a seriously damaging effect within the workplace. These harmful effects can influence decisions around recruitment, promotion, training and performance management. In this way, unconscious bias can quickly lead to a lack of diversity in the workplace and create significant barriers to inclusion and career progression.

For example, an employer may turn to males to take up leadership positions, even if they are less qualified than their female counterparts, or they may wrongly assume that someone with a visible disability would not want a customer-facing role. Often the employer will not be aware that they are behaving in this way or how this bias is affecting their decision-making.

Unconscious bias also often results in a set of micro-behaviours. Examples of positive micro-behaviours include managers supporting the ideas of someone with whom they have an unconscious affinity whilst in a team meeting, or simply wanting to have coffee with someone similar to themselves. Examples of negative micro-behaviours include cutting someone off in meetings or ignoring their contributions because they’re visibly different.

Affinity bias is especially harmful in organisational decision-making, where managers are more likely to assign key client projects to individuals within their teams with whom they have an unconscious affinity with. Where there is some kind of affinity, managers are also more likely to spend time discussing the positive aspects of a persons performance, with a focus on development and progression. In contrast, for those where there is little affinity, managers are more likely to question and seek to disparage past performance.


How can you test for unconscious bias?

Following collaborative research between researchers at Harvard University, the University of Virginia and University of Washington, psychologists have developed a range of online tests to measure unconscious bias. These are known as Implicit Association Tests (IATs). With the same test format adopted for use in the UK, IATs can be used to assess a person’s attitudes or beliefs about a range of topics, including age, weight, gender, sexuality, skin-tone and race.

The IAT measures unconscious or automatic biases, and can tap those hidden stereotypes and prejudices that circumvent conscious control. Although IAT’s are by no means an accurate indicator of a person’s true beliefs, where the results can be influenced by different variables, such as fatigue, they can be used as a tool to jumpstart our thinking about hidden biases. This can help us to identify where these biases come from and how they influence our actions.

The IAT works by measuring associations between concepts, for example, young people and old people, and evaluations of these subjects, for example, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The test participant will be asked to put a series of images and words into categories as fast as they can using buttons on their keyboard. The idea is that people are quicker to respond when items that are more closely related in their mind share the same button. For example, an implicit preference for young people means that someone will be faster to sort words when images of young people and ‘good’ share a button, relative to when images of old people and ‘good’ share a button. The speed of word association will then test any unconscious bias.

The test participant will also be asked a number of standard demographic questions, as well as questions about their attitudes and beliefs. For example, in an age-related unconscious bias test, a test participant will be asked the following series of questions:

  • Which statement best describes you? (eg, ‘I like young and old people equally’)
  • How warm or cold do you feel towards young people?
  • How warm or cold do you feel towards old people?
  • What age would you choose to be?
  • What age would you like to live until?
  • How old do other people usually think you are?
  • How old do you feel?
  • At what age does a person move from being a child to being a young adult?
  • At what age does a person move from being a young adult to being an adult?
  • At what age does a person move from being an adult to middle-aged?
  • At what age does a person move from being middle-aged to old?


Having undertaken the practical exercises and answered all the questions, the test participant will receive an interpretation of their IAT performance. In some cases, the IAT could reveal an automatic preference. Depending on the magnitude of the IAT result, the automatic preference may be described as ‘slight’, ‘moderate’, ‘strong’ or ‘little to no preference’.


Dealing with unconscious bias in the workplace

Often our intention is not to make biased decisions and, through a focus on conscious thinking and by creating inclusive workplace cultures, we can learn to control our unconscious biases and mitigate the impact of this on our recruit­ment, performance and talent processes.

Even though it would be virtually impossible to entirely eliminate unconscious bias, where residual intolerances and prejudices are always likely to remain in our subconscious, the following practical steps can help to tackle the influence of hidden bias:

  • Become aware of our own unconscious bias: regardless of how fair-minded and inclusive we believe ourselves to be, most of us have some degree of unconscious bias. Identifying the biases that we may have can often be the hardest step, but it’s only once we understand our own bias that we can challenge and overcome this. Educating yourself and your team through unconscious bias training is a good first step.
  • Find your unconscious bias-trigger: write a list of situations when you’re most likely to have experienced any biases. This could be when you encounter a certain individual or group of people, are in a particular mood or use a certain form of communication, such as email or in meetings. Recognising when bias is taking control over our decision-making and behaviour is a key step in minimising the negative impact of unconscious bias in the workplace.
  • Slow down: the next time you notice an unconscious bias-trigger, try giving yourself a minute to pause and consider your response before instantly reacting. A good way of turning off the part of your brain that automatically makes snap judgments is to take three deep breaths. This will help your brain to make more careful, conscious and rational decisions.
  • Do one small thing differently: by trying different approaches at work, just in small ways, such as asking a different person to kick off each meeting or getting feedback from someone who wasn’t vocal during a meeting, this can help to create a more inclusive environment.
  • Reward yourself: by giving yourself some well-deserved recognition for addressing any unconscious bias, this can help embed new thought processes. Research shows that positive emotions help to cement things as habits.


Need assistance? 

DavidsonMorris’ HR consultants are experienced in supporting employers with all aspects of human resource best practice, including implementing cultural change, diversity & inclusion and employee engagement programmes. As the implications of unconscious bias become increasingly clear across organisational procedures and functions, we are on hand to provide expert guidance and advice. Contact us to discuss how to improve your organisation’s approach to diversity and unconscious bias.


Unconscious bias FAQs

What are the 5 unconscious biases?

There are various forms of unconscious bias, but often the 5 unconscious biases most commonly found in the workplace are affinity bias, confirmation bias, anchor bias, conformity bias and attribution bias.

How do I know what my unconscious bias is?

One of the best ways of identifying any hidden biases is by taking an Implicit Association Test (IAT). An IAT can be used to evaluate a person’s attitudes or beliefs about a range of topics, including age, gender and race.

What are the 3 types of bias?

Affinity bias is one of the most common forms of unconscious bias in the workplace, where we often have a deep subconscious preference for people who are similar to ourselves. Other commons biases include confirmation bias and anchor bias.

Affinity bias is one of the most common forms of unconscious bias in the workplace, where we often have a deep subconscious preference for people who are similar to ourselves. Other commons biases include confirmation bias and anchor bias.

Unconscious bias training is one of the most effective ways of minimising the negative impact of hidden intolerances and prejudices in the workplace. It’s only once we understand our own biases that we can challenge and overcome them.

Last updated: 26 July 2021


Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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