Hence, both managers who reflect on their unconscious biases and de-biasing management processes are important prerequisites for inclusive leadership, which in turn can lead to more inclusive work environments with an adequate representation of women and other minorities.

What are unconscious biases?

Also known as implicit biases, unconscious biases are automatic stereotypes about groups of people outside our conscious awareness (Herbert, 2013). While biases are not inherently negative, by their reductive nature, they can lead to discriminatory decisions and actions if we allow stereotypes to guide us. Three types of biases affect human resource practices:

  1. Confirmation bias: We search for and focus on information that confirms beliefs we already hold.
  2. Similarity bias: We gravitate toward people similar to us, evaluating their ideas more positively.
  3. Attribution bias: We falsely attribute other people’s actions to some flawed personal characteristic rather than situational factors.

How do biases affect personnel decisions? What are levers to reduce their influence?

Unconscious biases and recruitment

When it comes to vacancies, managers’ biased decisions strongly influence whether certain groups have a chance to enter the company. For example, prone to the similarity bias, companies risk excluding high potentials from continuing in the hiring process only because they are different from the interviewer. Not only should companies deliberately counteract biases during the initial screening of applications, but they should also be vigilant about having a well-balanced candidate pool throughout the entire recruitment process. Johnson et al. (2016), for instance, found that if there is only one woman in a finalist pool during a candidate search, there is virtually no chance that she will be hired.

Luckily, several strategies can minimize bias and discrimination: When reviewing incoming applications, it may make sense to remove identifying information from résumés to avoid being influenced by applicants’ gender. A pilot study conducted by the German Anti-Discrimination Commission from 2010 to 2011 asked eight major companies and organizations to anonymize their application procedures (Krause et al., 2012) and found that the rate of discrimination for all companies decreased due to the intervention. Additionally, candidates should be screened by multiple people, asked the same questions in the same order and evaluated based on identical criteria (Herbert, 2013) to minimize the amount of leeway for recruiters to judge candidates based on biases.

Unconscious biases and promotions

Even if an institution is able to onboard a diverse staff, this unfortunately does not mean that they are also able to develop them. For example, similarity and attribution biases can cause male supervisors to unconsciously view other men more favorably and attribute successful projects largely to male collaborators.

Hence, it is vital that managers be trained and sensitized to foster, promote and model sustainable approaches to diversity and unconscious biases during the personnel development and promotion processes. Additionally, all HR processes should be “de-biased”: Promotions might be discussed with several carefully composed circles that take potential biases and fair promotion goals into account. Another possibility is to shift promotion processes to follow an “opt out” logic. For example, at Deloitte Switzerland, all women and all employees who work on 80 percent contracts are automatically part of the promotion pool leading to a higher promotion rate for women, minorities and part-time employees. Crucially, HR processes should not be “de-biased” in isolation but rather as part of a corporate culture that values diversity for the whole organization (Sander and Hartmann, 2019).

De-biasing management and processes to foster inclusion culture

In order to lessen the impact of unconscious biases in company leadership and HR processes, it is crucial to examine personal unconscious biases and foster an inclusive working environment. Leaders who critically examine their own unconscious biases and implement strategies to prevent unconscious biases from affecting decision-making are well on their way towards inclusive leadership. Inclusive leadership is a prerequisite for inclusion as managers shape the organizational culture (Shore, et al. 2011).

Hence, it is particularly important to raise awareness for unconscious biases on the managerial level and to de-bias management processes to guarantee high levels of inclusion and equal opportunities for all employees.

Inclusive leadership skills will allow leaders to utilize to the fullest the advantages of diversity in those they manage.

Are you interested in learning more about Unconscious Biases? Click here 

About the author(s)

Portrait Gudrun Sander 246

Prof. Dr. Gudrun Sander Director Competence Centre for Diversity and Inclusion


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