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Unconscious Bias – what is it and how does it affect you?

It has been stated that unconscious bias is the “ultimate 2018 workplace buzzword” and in its purest form it is “the pesky judgement voice that we have in our heads”.


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We all have our own forms of bias, whether it be that you are more prone to certain colours, fragrances or tastes, or that you are more inclined to favour one person over the other based on your own values or beliefs.

So, what is unconscious bias? It is bias that we are often unaware of which is applied outside of our direct control. Unconscious bias can happen automatically and is triggered by our brain making assumptions or quick judgments based on what we see or feel when making assessments.

Unconscious bias is engrained in our human nature and is not something that Employers can be excluded from. Some Employers possess the ability to push their own biases and beliefs aside and focus solely on the information in front of them, enabling them to make an unbiased or independent decision. However, for other Employers or Managers, unconscious bias can play a significant part in the decision-making process.

Where an Employer investigates a workplace complaint or allegation, an Employee could run the argument that the investigation was not independent because the outcome was predetermined or, was based on pre-existing views or knowledge held by their Employer. If the outcome of the investigation was to implement disciplinary action, and this was challenged, the Employee may be successful in running this argument through stating that the Employer was privy to all information about the Employee and therefore unconsciously determined an outcome based on feelings held from previous events.

So how do you avoid spending significant time and resources conducting an investigation only to potentially have it overturned through a challenge of unconscious bias? The Employment Relations Authority are now placing a greater emphasis in wanting to seek true independence in both disciplinary and investigation processes.

True independence may be in the form of a Manager from another team or department being responsible for undertaking the investigation or, where this is not possible, an independent external party being responsible for completing the investigation or facilitating the disciplinary meeting.

Although the alternative Manager or independent external party cannot assume the Employer’s role of being the Ultimate Decision Maker, they can challenge the views of the Employer to ensure that the decision is made on the available facts, not on previously held perceptions.

It would be difficult for an Employee to argue that an independent Investigator or facilitator exhibited bias against them, as any bias (unconscious or otherwise) would need to be clearly demonstrated within the investigator’s report or the facilitator’s comments.

Adopting these practices to overcome the challenges that may come through unconscious bias will ensure that the Employer’s decision is more robust and able to withstand the scrutiny of an external challenge – even within the Employment Relations Authority.

If you need assistance with investigating a workplace complaint, or facilitating a disciplinary process, we would be more than happy to assist you.

The Employer File is written by Russell Drake, of Russell Drake Consulting Ltd., Specialist Employment Relations Consultants who act exclusively for Employers - see or phone (07) 838 0018.