What is unconscious bias?

*This blog was originally published by Hogan Assessments


The category for Jeopardy! is Bias in Hiring. Your clue: the talent acquisition process that led to Mike Richards being named as the new Jeopardy! host may have been influenced by this psychological phenomenon.1

If you answered “what is unconscious bias?” you are spot-on.1 Of course, unconscious bias can be hard to prove, but there must be some explanation for Sony to have chosen an internal candidate with a documented history of racist, sexist, and offensive comments, despite a diverse hiring pool that included Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Reading Rainbow’s LeVar Burton, and Big Bang Theory’s Mayim Bialik, PhD.1 While the exact cause of the Jeopardy! hiring debacle will likely remain a mystery, this high-profile example of a subpar internal candidate winning out over more qualified ones presents a good opportunity to examine bias in hiring, specifically unconscious bias.

What is unconscious bias?
We all have unconscious biases because we are all driven by values.Values are part of the human condition.They define our identities, our goals, and our decision-making processes. Our values come from our environment and are consistently reinforced by our family, neighbourhood, school, peer group, and larger culture, often without us realising it.2 These values powerfully shape the way we work, play, and manage relationships.2 So, what is unconscious bias? Unconscious bias occurs when we project our values onto others and therefore hold them to unfair (and often unknowable) standards.2 These inclinations affect how we handle conflict, what type of behaviour we reward or punish, our ability to form and maintain a cohesive team, and yes, who we hire and promote.2

The perils of unconscious bias
People who make hiring decisions based on their unconscious biases unsurprisingly tend to hire candidates who closely match their own values.2 Furthermore, leaders who mold work environments according to their unconscious biases will probably make employees with dissimilar values feel silenced and underappreciated, leading to disengagement and turnover.2

Enron, a company responsible for one of the largest bankruptcies and audit failures of all time, is a clear example of what happens when leaders are led by their unconscious biases.2 When Jeffrey Skilling took over the company as CEO, his disposition toward risky behaviour in the name of competition and big rewards became the company’s prevailing ethos.2 He hired candidates who pandered to this approach and terminated those who didn’t.2 Considering Enron’s fate, this approach was clearly mistaken. If there was ever an office that needed a dissenting opinion, it was his. This brings us to our next peril of unconscious bias …

Your clue: a cursory glance around the office can sometimes (not always) diagnose this organisational deficiency related to unconscious bias in hiring.

If you answered, “what is a lack of diversity?” you are spot-on. Sustained diversity in race, ethnicity, gender identity, disability, and age is an outward sign of an employer’s efforts to reduce bias in hiring. In many societies around the world, diversity and inclusion are not naturally self-sustaining and must be continually nurtured.3 Employers in the United States, for example, have to contend with the fact that women are dropping out of the workforce en masse because of issues related to childcare and pay inequality.4 Meanwhile, people of colour say they prefer remote work because it helps them avoid in-office microaggressions, and people with disabilities prefer it for more easily navigating accessibility issues.5

Workplace diversity goals
Although no cure-all exists for diversity and inclusion efforts, using well-validated personality tests during the talent acquisition process can promote fairness in selection and create a foundation for a more inclusive workplace.6 Our research shows that personality is a strong predictor of job performance, but there are no meaningful subgroup differences across members of protected classes.6 In other words, well-validated personality tests don’t discriminate based on race, gender, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability status.6 As a result, personality can help level the playing field so organisations can hire the best talent without discriminating against any group.6

Employers should treat fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace as a daily goal. As a committee in apartheid South Africa once concluded when comparing integrated and nonintegrated colleges: “Diversity contributes to the discovery of truth, for truth is hammered out in discussion, in the clash of ideas.”7 Indeed, diversity holds the same strategic importance in the business world — organisations with more diversity and inclusion practices tend to have fewer gaps in knowledge, absenteeism, and turnover, but better organisational innovation and performance.6 This is why it’s not enough to control bias in hiring; it’s also critical for leaders to make sure their unconscious biases do not undercut an inclusive atmosphere.

Workplace inclusion goals
An inclusive workplace makes people feel safe, valued, and fully engaged. It provides an atmosphere where they can be fully themselves in ways that recognise and appreciate their full range of social identities.6

Leaders who want to foster inclusive work environments can incorporate personality tests into their talent acquisition and development strategies to ensure they select and promote people whose behaviors will be inclusive. People who take personality tests such as Hogan’s Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory, or MVPI, can get insight into their peer and lifestyle preferences, their aversions, and their beliefs. These characteristics greatly influence the type of work environment they will create.2 When leaders become aware of their core values and motivations, they can manage their biases to make more informed personnel decisions.2 Personality data can be useful in making these decisions because it ensures that the final hire is the person most competent for the role and not someone who appeals to the hiring manager’s biases.2

Contrary to popular misconception, using personality for talent acquisition does not create a workforce of people who have the same personality profile, even when creating a more inclusive organisational culture is the goal.3 Selection profiles are usually specific for each job and change across jobs.3 Furthermore, personality profiles for a particular job typically only screen for a few personality characteristics that are key to success in the role.3 Other personality characteristics likely will vary substantially among people within the same role.3 Using personality data in hiring decisions, employers can trust that they’re hiring people whose personalities are alike in ways that will positively impact their job performance but who will be unique in their other qualities and behaviours. 

Practical tips
Rooting out unconscious bias from talent management processes will help organisations thrive and avoid hiring ineffective candidates. So, what are some practical recommendations for employers to limit the effects of unconscious bias in the workplace? First, use personality tests in talent acquisition to improve diversity in hiring. Second, use well-validated personality tests to assess and develop leaders who will foster an inclusive work environment. Third, provide development feedback to employees to enhance their awareness of their people skills, their shortcomings, and their core values and unconscious biases. And finally, understand that while these strategies can help you progress toward creating more objective talent acquisition and development processes and a healthy organisational culture, they should be part (not all) of a comprehensive diversity and inclusion program.

For over 30 years, Peter Berry Consultancy (PBC) has been using an evidence-based approach to candidate selection and development to ensure success for its client organisations. To learn more, contact us.

For a full list of references, please refer to the original Hogan blog.

Contact us

Latest posts


Tap into our extensive collection of research, sample reports, case studies and thought leadership.

PBC uses cookies. Learn more about our cookie policy.