How Unconscious Bias Impacts Employee Engagement and Retention

We’ve all heard the term “unconscious bias,” but it’s easy to dismiss it as something that affects others, not us. The reality is that unconscious bias affects everyone to some degree. Often described as a “hidden flaw,” research indicates that no matter our role or position at work, we all harbour hidden prejudices that influence our thinking without us even realising it.

For business leaders, recognising and addressing unconscious bias is crucial to ensuring it doesn’t influence behaviour and decisions at work. Left unchecked, unconscious bias can undermine efforts to create an inclusive and open-minded company culture, compromise integrity, inhibit workforce diversity, and hinder career progression.

Understanding Unconscious Bias

According to Imperial College London, unconscious (or implicit) bias is “the associations we hold, outside our conscious awareness and control.” It’s triggered by our brain automatically making quick judgements and assessments, influenced by a range of factors including personal experiences, background, and cultural context.

Unconscious bias isn’t limited to obvious categories like gender or ethnicity. Even factors like height, name, or choice of sport can trigger these automatic mental shortcuts.

Types of Unconscious Bias

Unconscious biases can manifest in various ways and workplace scenarios, such as:

  • Affinity Bias: Our tendency to favour people with similar backgrounds, interests, and beliefs as ourselves.
  • Confirmation Bias: Seeking out evidence that confirms our preconceived opinions about a candidate, whether positive or negative.
  • Cultural Bias: Judging others based on the standards of our own culture.
  • Gender Bias: Prejudging individuals based on gender, perpetuating stereotypes such as labelling an ambitious woman as “bossy” while calling a man “focused.”

Why It Matters

Unconscious bias can significantly impact our perception and interactions with others, which can be detrimental to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts and overall business success. It influences key business decisions, leading to inequalities in recruitment, performance management, and career progression.

The Consequences of Unchecked Unconscious Bias

  1. Biased Hiring Practices Recruitment serves as the pipeline for new talent. If we only hire people who fit our personal preferences or biases, our organisation becomes homogeneous, missing out on a diverse talent pool. Job descriptions with gendered language or adverts targeting limited platforms can also exclude certain groups.

  2. Clouded Judgement in Performance Management Unconscious bias can skew performance reviews and feedback. Managers might unfairly inflate or deflate ratings during appraisals, impacting decisions on pay rises or disciplinary actions. Employees who feel overlooked or undervalued may become flight risks or pursue legal action.

  3. Misguided Promotions Promotion decisions based on biased perceptions rather than merit can result in the wrong people advancing. Favouring someone because of assumed positive characteristics, or sidelining someone due to negative stereotypes, undermines fairness and organisational success.

  4. Repelling Top Talent Attracting top talent drives creativity, innovation, and brand enhancement. However, without a diverse and inclusive environment, talented individuals may seek opportunities elsewhere, leading to a loss of potential future leaders.

  5. Decreased Employee Engagement Unconscious bias contributes to higher turnover and lower retention rates. If employees feel unfairly treated, undervalued, or excluded, their engagement plummets, often leading to their departure.

Moving Forward

Eliminating unconscious bias is an ongoing process, but actively addressing and moving beyond these biases can make us better leaders. HR leaders and business owners have a responsibility to foster a culture of inclusion, fairness, and appreciation for diversity. By doing so, they not only enhance employee engagement and retention but also contribute to the overall success and integrity of their organisations.

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Call us directly in our Chichester office on 01243 – 967961 or email [email protected]

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Helen Price-Evans 
HR Guru Starfish People Ltd 

#unconsciousbias #employeeengagement #diversityandinclusion #workplaceculture #hrleadership #talentmanagement #inclusiveworkplace #employeeretention #businesssuccess #fairworkplace

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