What Is Unconscious Bias, and How Can We Eliminate It?

What Is Unconscious Bias, and How Can We Eliminate It?

Almost 20 years ago, unconscious bias was brought to prominence by a controversial test. Read on to explore the concept of unconscious bias and why it is essential to eliminate discrimination and racism in the workplace.

The Implicit Association Test (IAT)

The IAT is commonly used to assess an individual’s unconscious biases and social stereotypes. A versatile test, the IAT can be used to investigate biases in race, religion, gender, age, sexuality, and weight, and it can even assess the self-esteem of test participants themselves.

The IAT was first introduced by Anthony Greenwald, Jordan Schwartz, and Debbie McGhee in 1998. It is now widely implemented in social psychology, and to a smaller degree, cognitive, clinical, and developmental psychology. At the time, Greenwald and his team of researchers suggested that up to 95 percent of people hold some form of unconscious bias.


Unconscious bias

Put simply, bias is prejudice. It is a predilection in favor of, or against, a particular person, group, or thing.

A bias can be held by individuals or by groups of people. Biases can have positive and negative consequences both for the subject of the bias and the biased person. Moreover, biases are not restricted to race and gender—they can be aimed at any social group.

Unconscious biases are formed outside of the individual’s own conscious awareness. They are social stereotypes held by the individual about certain groups of people. More widespread than conscious bias, unconscious bias lurks in the periphery, often going unchecked. All of us hold unconscious beliefs about different social groups, often stemming from an innate instinct to compartmentalize and categorize our social worlds.

These unconscious biases generally lie dormant most of the time, but in certain situations, they can become far more obvious. For example, unconscious biases may rise to the surface when an individual is working under pressure or attempting to multi-task. It usually creeps in when we are on autopilot, as well.

Often, when these unconscious biases arise, they are in direct conflict with our conscious values. After all, few of us would care to admit being prejudiced, even to ourselves.

Unconscious bias in the workplace

Unconscious bias occurs outside of our control. It happens when our brain makes snap judgments. In all elements of society, unconscious bias continues to thrive, particularly in the workplace.

Women are frequently discriminated against professionally, be that through lower salaries or in the way they are spoken to and treated. And as they climb the corporate ladder, that bias is often exacerbated.

Unconscious bias is far more common than many business leaders realize. It can also be difficult to get rid of.

Unconscious bias in recruitment

Left unchecked, unconscious bias can have an extremely negative impact on the candidate selection process, such as when recruiters pass over promising candidates for personal favorites.

Fostering diversity and inclusion within the workforce is key to creating commercial competitiveness. Studies have established a direct link between diversity and profitability. In essence, the more different viewpoints and individual experiences a company brings to the boardroom, the more success it can achieve.


Today’s societies and markets are diverse, and businesses that lack different types of experiences, insights, and worldviews will fail to connect with large segments of their potential market. Companies that embrace inclusivity and diversity, however, can become more innovative—and thus outperform their competitors—as a diverse workforce can provide a variety of different solutions to the same problem in terms of sourcing, service, and allocation of company resources.

Moreover, diversity promotes flexibility. It enables decisionmakers to better understand their customers and adapt to market fluctuations. By integrating individuals with different skill sets and experiences (for example, different languages and cultural understanding), a company increases its reach, connecting with a wider target audience.

Creating a diverse workforce enables employees to learn from each other and to grow, both as individuals and together. Employees who are exposed to new cultures and ideas are forced to open their minds, gaining a clearer view of the people around them. Thus, increasing diversity breaks down barriers and promotes personal growth.

Eliminating unconscious bias in the workplace

Many leading companies recognize that, as human beings, instinctive feelings can have a powerful effect on our perception, affecting us as much as, if not more than, logical thought processes.

Every day, we are inundated with thoughts and decisions; if we took the time to evaluate every single one, we would quickly become overwhelmed. The human brain is hardwired to make thousands of snap decisions every single day. In the workplace, it is vital to establish whether our inclinations reflect the facts before us or whether they are based on unconscious bias.

Censia is a talent intelligence platform that takes the guesswork out of recruitment. Its intuitive algorithms model a company’s existing top performers to find the right candidate for the job, irrespective of their gender, race, religion, socio-economic background, or sexual orientation.

It takes the average HR team 33 hours to source job candidates, and 73 percent of firms note that they struggle to find quality talent. Censia’s talent database, however, features half a billion of the world’s top professionals, enabling recruiters to identify and engage with top tier candidates in a matter of minutes.

About the Author

Joanna RileyJoanna (Jo) Riley is an entrepreneur, investor, and advocate in technology, and is currently the CEO and Co-Founder of Censia. Jo has a highly experienced background in building and scaling companies, which she attributes to her deep passion for people and building technologies that allow people to be their best selves. She brings her wide knowledge of the industry to better transform the way enterprise companies hire talent. You can connect with Joanna Riley at @joannakiddriley on Twitter or on Linkedin. Read her full bio here.