Bias Exposed: Exploring Unconscious Bias

1-2 minutes

In this blog, you will learn: 

  • What unconscious bias is
  • What unconscious bias is within recruitment
  • The causes of unconscious bias 
  • How unconscious bias can negatively affect the recruitment process
  • The 11 unconscious biases in recruitment
  • What can be done to reduce unconscious bias in recruitment
  • If unconscious bias is illegal or not

What is unconscious bias?

The term ‘unconscious bias’ was coined in 1995 by Psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald after research highlighted that implicit biases can have an unknowing impact on decision making.  

Unconscious bias is a cognitive process that occurs automatically without our conscious awareness, making it difficult to recognise and resolve. 

In everyday life unconscious bias refers to the deeply ingrained attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes that influence our decisions about a person and their expected character, behaviour and background. 

Often stemming from societal or cultural conditioning, unconscious bias can affect how we develop relationships in our personal and professional lives.

There are a number of characteristics that influence our thoughts and feelings towards another person. 

Whether it’s a person’s age, gender, socio-economic status or race, all of these characteristics can subconsciously impact how they are perceived and treated by other individuals.

What is unconscious bias in recruitment?

When a company is hiring for a new team member, they’ll be searching for an individual who has the required skills and experience to succeed within the role.

However, when unconscious bias comes into play, it can make the recruitment process unintentionally unfair.  

Think about it like this, you’re a hiring manager who has whittled a pool of candidates down to the final two after a stringent interview process.

Both candidates have excellent experience, a varied skill set and you’re confident that they will fit into your office culture.

However, candidate A is 24 years old and candidate B is 47 years old. 

This could go one of two ways. Your unconscious bias might persuade you that the 24 year old will be more energetic than the older candidate and will therefore be more passionate about the role. 

Alternatively, your unconscious bias might persuade you that the 47 year old candidate's knowledge and experience within the industry will be greater than the younger candidates.

Either way, your unconscious bias has led you to make assumptions about each candidate, based solely on their age and not the actual skills and experience they possess. 

Age is not the only factor that can affect unconscious bias. A person’s socio-economic status, race, gender and sexuality can all play a part in forming unconscious perceptions which might influence the recruitment process.  

What causes unconscious bias?

A person’s unconscious bias is generally caused by two main factors; their upbringing and society.

Primarily, unconscious bias is shaped by the experiences a person has during their upbringing. The cultural norms, values and beliefs of a person’s upbringing are all crucial factors in developing unconscious bias. 

Society also plays a significant role in forming unconscious bias. Media representations, such as the news and social media all contribute to developing a person’s bias. 

For example, social media is guilty of promoting that to be healthy and successful in life, a person must be of a smaller size. If a hiring manager is frequently subjected to this perception, they might begin to unconsciously develop a bias towards thinner people, as they believe their health will result in better workplace performance. 

As well as a person’s upbringing and society, the brain's tendency to categorise and simplify information and a lack of exposure to diverse perspectives can limit understanding and perpetuate biases. 

How does unconscious bias negatively affect the recruitment process?

Unconscious bias significantly impacts the recruitment process and can lead to the unintentional exclusion of highly qualified candidates. 

When hiring managers are influenced by unconscious biases, they might develop preferences for certain traits, backgrounds, or characteristics that align with their own personal experiences or societal stereotypes. 

This bias can manifest in various ways, such as favouring candidates from the same age group, valuing similar hobbies or interests, or gravitating towards individuals who share similar demographics.

As a result, outstanding candidates who possess diverse perspectives, unique skill sets, and valuable experiences might be overlooked or disregarded during the recruitment process. 

Hiring managers might unconsciously disregard CVs from individuals with unfamiliar names or from underrepresented communities. As a result of this, highly qualified candidates might not even make it to the interview stage of the recruitment process. 

Similarly, during interviews, bias can influence subjective assessments from hiring managers, leading to judgments based on non-job-related factors such as the appearance or mannerisms of an interviewee.

Not only can the occurrence of unconscious bias lead to companies missing out on exceptional individuals, it can inhibit the diversity of a workplace and increase employee turnover.

According to Deloitte Insights, organisations who focus on a candidate's skills rather than their background are 98% more likely to retain high performers, implying that unconscious bias can have long term negative effects on an organisation. 

What are the 11 unconscious biases in recruitment?

There are 11 unconscious biases in recruitment that refer to the hidden biases that can affect hiring decisions.

  • Affinity bias
  • Ageism
  • Attribution bias
  • Beauty bias
  • Confirmation bias
  • Conformity bias
  • The contrast effect
  • Gender bias
  • The halo/horns effect
  • Name bias
  • Weight bias

Affinity bias

Affinity bias refers to a person’s tendency to gravitate towards a person they deem to be similar to themselves. In recruitment, this might result in a person being hired because they share the same race, gender or socio-economic status as the hiring manager. 


Judging a person’s ability to succeed in a role based on their age is a form of ageism. This bias might result in younger candidates being hired over somebody who has great experience within an industry, purely because of their age.

Attribution bias

Attribution bias refers to the act of attributing a person’s successes or failures to their personal qualities without considering situational influences. Within recruitment this can lead to unfair evaluations of a candidate. 

Beauty bias

Beauty bias refers to the act of judging a person’s abilities based upon how attractive they are deemed to be. This bias especially affects women within the recruitment process and can result in ‘prettier’ candidates being treated more favourably. 

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias within recruitment refers to a hiring manager's tendency to seek or favour information that confirms preexisting expectations of a candidate. This form of bias can result in a hiring manager downplaying or completely disregarding any information that contradicts their initial thoughts of a candidate. 

Conformity bias

Conformity bias alludes to the tendency of hiring manager's to conform to the opinions of others involved in the hiring process, without critically evaluating them. This can occur if a hiring manager is prioritising social harmony over independent thinking. This can negatively impact the recruitment process by suppressing diverse perspectives and perpetuating existing biases. 

The Contrast Effect

The Contrast Effect refers to a hiring manager evaluating the performance of one candidate in contrast to another and making potentially unfair comparisons. This effect usually occurs when two candidates are seen in quick succession and the impression of the first is still fresh in a hiring manager’s thoughts.

Gender bias

As it implies, gender bias alludes to the unconscious judgements a hiring manager might make about a person based on their gender. Generally, women suffer the effects of this bias more frequently than men, with less weight given to their skills and experience simply because they are female.

The Halo/Horns effect

The Halo/Horns Effect occurs when a hiring manager favours a candidate after learning something impressive about them. On the other hand, a candidate might miss out on an opportunity if a hiring manager learns something negative about them during the recruitment process. 

Name bias

Name bias refers to the act of creating perceptions about a person based solely on their name. This can result in a hiring manager making assumptions about a person’s background and socio-economic status and might mean that exceptional candidates do not make it past CV selection.

Weight bias

Weight bias alludes to the act of a hiring manager judging a person on their physical weight. Sometimes, a candidate carrying more weight might miss out on a job opportunity because a hiring manager makes the assumption that they are lazy or not physically fit enough to excel in the role. 

What can be done to reduce unconscious bias in recruitment

Addressing unconscious bias requires self-reflection, education, and active effort. By acknowledging and understanding biases, hiring managers can work towards fostering a fairer recruitment process.

Depending on the type of bias, there are a number of ways for a hiring manager to mitigate its effects.

For example, to overcome gender bias, hiring managers should ensure that job descriptions are gender neutral and remain open minded to opportunities for promotion and development, regardless of whether a candidate is male or female. 

To avoid the effects of ageism, a hiring manager might choose to have all graduation and examination dates removed from a CV before it is taken for consideration. This should result in less assumptions being made about a person based on their age, and allow a hiring manager chance to focus on the important sections of a CV, such as skills and experience. 

The more self aware a person is, the more chance they have of combating unconscious bias. 

To increase self awareness organisations and individuals can engage in unconscious bias training. This should help hiring managers to identify and address their own biases within the recruitment processes and make it a fairer process overall. 

Courses such as the CPD online Unconscious Bias Course are aimed to raise awareness about unconscious bias, promote diversity within the workplace and implement standardised recruitment processes that focus on a person’s skills and experience. 

Is unconscious bias within recruitment illegal

As a natural cognitive process, unconscious bias itself is not illegal.

However, the actions or decisions resulting from unconscious bias can lead to illegal and discriminatory practices. 

Discrimination based on characteristics, such as race, gender, age, religion, or disability, is illegal in many jurisdictions. 

If unconscious bias influences decisions related to hiring, promotions, or other aspects of employment, and those decisions result in unfair or discriminatory treatment, it can lead to potential legal consequences for an employer.  

Legal action taken towards an employer could result in anything from financial penalties to legal proceedings in a court of law.

Who is Spencer Clarke Group? 

Since 2017, we've been changing the face of recruitment. From our employees, to the way we do business, to the culture within our office, we're determined to make a difference and create a positive impact on everyone around us.

Recruitment to us isn't just about matching candidates and clients; we’re passionate about finding candidates the perfect job which has the ability to boost their salary and standard of living, better their work life balance and improve their mental health. 

Similarly, we understand the impact which an experienced and skilled employee can make to a business and we love seeing clients thrive through the hard work of candidates which we have placed with them. 

We operate in two sectors:

Private Sector

Public Sector 

In eleven specialisms:

Accountancy & Finance

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Highways, Infrastructure & Engineering

If you’re searching for a new role, why not visit our job page to take a look at the latest opportunities? Alternatively, upload your CV and one of our experienced consultants will contact you when a relevant opportunity becomes available. 

If you’re struggling to fill a role, why don’t you give us a call on 01772 954200 to see how we can help? One of our consultants will be happy to listen to the challenges which you are facing and advise on the best possible solution for you. 

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