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Peter MacDonald Hall11 min read

Conscious inclusion: How to mitigate unconscious bias at work

Conscious inclusion: How to mitigate unconscious bias at work

More than one third of UK adults feel they have been discriminated against at work, according to a report by HR software provider CIPHR. While it’s a normal human behaviour to categorise people and objects, these judgements are often formed unconsciously and are underpinned by our environment, experiences and media consumption. Thus, our thoughts and behaviours can be unfairly led by unconscious bias rather than evidence. 

Discrimination is an important topic to discuss in the workplace, but how do we address it when the bias is implicit? Peter MacDonald Hall, consultant at FAIRER Consulting, explores how we must first identify our unconscious biases before leveraging conscious inclusion and deliberate action to create a diverse and inclusive workplace.

What is unconscious bias and conscious inclusion?

Unconscious bias refers to our automatic, ingrained attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes. These biases are formed without a person's awareness and can affect their decision-making behaviours.
Conversely, conscious inclusion is very deliberate and intentional. It involves an absolute focus on creating an inclusive environment. Regardless of your background or how you identify, the aim is to make everyone feel welcome, respected and valued. “People won’t know how to mitigate their biases unless they are specifically working to identify their biases on a conscious level”, clarifies Peter. 

The damaging effects of implicit bias on organisations

It's important to be aware of our biases and how they can play out in the workplace. For example, an organisation that is trying to attract diverse talent might still have biases at play. If you examine the top of an organisation through a diversity lens, then examine the tier below that, you might notice a “mini me” effect – a form of affinity bias – where there is little variation in diverse representation between the two tiers.  

In this scenario, “People end up acting the same and not challenging the status quo – as a result there is a risk that innovative thinking and creativity will be impacted because of a lack of diverse representation. I may also question, ’How inclusive is the recruitment practice within that organisation?’ You might be articulating that you want more diversity but if the workplace culture does not reflect that, then diverse talent is harder to attract and retain”, explains Peter.

This is where organisations often make mistakes: they think they are being diverse and inclusive but those are two different concepts. You can invite diversity in, but if you're not proactively promoting inclusion, then you’re at risk of losing the diversity that you've worked so hard to attract.

Unconscious bias can also impact in terms of promotion and advancement opportunities, resulting in the unequal treatment of different groups. The perception held by some underrepresented groups is that they often have to work twice as hard in order to achieve the same success as other groups. If we're not actively working to mitigate bias, it can result in a hostile work culture.

A recent real-world example involves a pregnant Lloyds employee, who, after calling in sick due to experiencing pregnancy-related pains, was told to “get used to feeling discomfort” by a male manager. The employee ended up resigning due to feeling patronised and guilty for calling in sick, and the employer was fined as a result of pregnancy-related discrimination. “There’s clearly a bias going on here”, says Peter, “it’s neither an inclusive nor understanding environment”, he adds.  

If we’re not consciously working to mitigate biases it can lead to a toxic workplace culture, causing employees to feel uncomfortable at work, unsupported and, ultimately, affecting staff turnover. The right mix of diversity and inclusivity not only leads to greater innovation and creativity, but creates a workplace culture where people feel welcomed and respected. But in order to bring those key elements together, you need to be open to hearing different voices and different perspectives.

Reflecting diverse communities in an authentic way is imperative when it comes to global businesses. Organisations need to tune in and adapt to reflect the local cultural norms. If you’re not doing that, it can negatively impact the reputation of your organisation in terms of employee experience and client perception – and the legal risk is huge.

 The challenge of any global organisation is to actively promote a culture of inclusion that is beneficial for all, while ensuring inclusive behaviours align with organisational values of dignity and respect. If exclusionary behaviours get out into the public domain, you risk future talent looking at your competitors to develop their careers.  

Leveraging conscious inclusion to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace

“When you are being consciously inclusive, you start to develop an awareness of what your blind spots may be”, says Peter. “You recognise the importance of listening to diverse voices from across the organisation, regardless of what level they are, because you never know where the next great idea will come from”, he continues.

Our world is fast-paced, complicated and increasingly becoming more diverse, so we need to develop diverse personal and professional networks that can help us keep abreast of change. The more diverse and inclusive our network, the better our ability to keep in tune of what’s changing.

How to identify exclusionary behaviours in the workplace

There are over 175 different types of cognitive bias, but there are a handful of biases which commonly present in the workplace, set out below:

Gender bias

Jobs listings with gender-neutral words receive 42% more applicants compared to those with gender-biased words, according to Zippia. A study by Collier and Zhang, which investigated linguistic bias within job descriptions, identified the following words as being perceived as either masculine or feminine:

Masculine-perceived words

Feminine-perceived words



Perform individually







Develop warm [client] relationships






Help [clients with] activities





Thus, recruiters should be conscious of the language used within job descriptions so not to exclude a particular group, but to become more gender-neutral.

Affinity bias

The risk of looking for candidates who mirror your background or experience, is that you limit the diversity, creativity and growth culture of a company. Do you favour candidates who have a similar employment background to you? Equally, a candidate with five years’ experience is not automatically superior to a candidate with two years’ experience, just because they qualified in the same year as you. 

Halo effect

“The halo effect relates to when we like something about a person – whether it be their attire, hometown, or shared interest – which has nothing to do with their CV or professional ability”, explains Peter. For example, a candidate who graduated from Oxford or Cambridge might not be the best person for the role simply because you are impressed by their place of study. We metaphorically put a halo over them and are more lenient with them as a result.

Attribution error / The horns effect

Conversely, the “horns effect”, or attribution error, causes us to make a negative judgement about a person based on one unrelated characteristic. “It might be that they are wearing a suit when, in fact, the office dress code is casual; or they are older and we wonder if they will fit in”, says Peter. We create a “horn” effect on that candidate and unfairly judge them more than others because of a perception which is formed without any evidence. 

Unconscious bias and CV screening

Younger candidates will sometimes put their photo on their CV, which can create a beauty bias, where a person’s physical appearance is used as a judgement of their character or competency. However, if a candidate is deemed too attractive it may leave them wondering if they are going to be taken seriously in the workplace. Seeing a candidate’s address on a CV can also influence unconscious perception, based on our opinion of that specific area. Likewise, the year of study can also give indication of a candidate’s age, which may play into bias. To offset this, more and more companies are utilising blind CVs to mitigate this bias – a step in the right direction.

How can organisations mitigate unconscious bias to ensure a fair and inclusive culture?

“First of all, it’s about developing awareness”, states Peter, “because the good thing about biases is that, while you can learn them at an early age, you can also un-learn them to mitigate their impact.” In order to un-learn biases, you’ve got to be proactive and deliberate. A great start is to begin diversifying your personal and professional network by connecting with people who have different lived experiences to you.

Another way to mitigate bias is to start broadening the range of mediums, literature and social channels that you follow. Our social feeds are now curated for us based on our past behaviour, so they play a part in re-affirming existing biases. To break this cycle, we need to branch out and subscribe to a more diverse pool of media. You don’t have to agree with everything you read, but it’s important to be challenged, hear other viewpoints and find your middle ground. “Things are rarely black and white. You get shades of grey, and the key is how you navigate those shades of grey”, explains Peter.

Blind CVs are another great way to mitigate bias from the recruitment process. “I would resist the temptation to put a photograph on my CV”, says Peter. Recruiters can request that names, addresses and even universities are removed from CVs before they are viewed to reduce the risk of cognitive bias. 

In fact, more and more recruiters are leveraging AI technology, like Textio, Ideal, Noirefy and Included, to mitigate bias in recruitment and increase efficiency. “AI is a useful tool to speed up the laborious process of screening CVs, or highlighting gender bias in job descriptions. But it’s important to note that AI can too be flawed because, if your AI is coded with human bias, it will simply perpetuate that bias. It still requires human oversight and intervention to ensure that the technology used is aligned with your organisation’s values and goals”, says Peter.

Unconscious bias training

“Another useful tool for identifying bias is undertaking unconscious bias training”, states Peter. Training can allow you to uncover some of your own blind spots and create a framework for positive decision-making towards an inclusive and diverse culture. 

Our Introduction to Unconscious Bias and Conscious Inclusion workshops draw on the fields of behavioural science and social psychology to understand why we have biases. They explore how biases impact us as individuals and groups within the workplace environment. Our secondary Understanding Bias 2.0: Mitigating Bias by Design programme focuses on system re-design, not just providing theory, but providing practical steps for putting it into practice.

“Unconscious bias training by itself won’t change anything if you don’t already have a culture that’s moving towards becoming inclusive and open to learning”, warns Peter. You need an element of both, otherwise it’s simply box-ticking. Building awareness is not enough, we need effective training that teaches participants to manage their biases, practice new behaviours and track their progress.

For example, a recent review by Baroness Louise Casey, found the Metropolitan Police to be institutionally racist, sexist and homophobic. The service has undertaken a plethora of diversity and unconscious bias training over a number of years. “Yes, they’ve done the training but what have they done to address attitudes and behaviours within the service?” questions Peter. Baroness Casey also found there was a culture of denial within the service. We must hold everybody accountable for challenging these exclusionary behaviours to ensure there is a real drive to deliver a positive, inclusive change for all. 

Putting theory into practice

How should you call out behaviours that don’t align with organisational values? “I would always assume positive intent”, says Peter. Critically, it’s about giving that person the opportunity to learn, rather than shutting them down. To avoid that person closing up and avoiding a learning opportunity, ask them instead, “What did you mean by that statement?” or, “What’s driving your thinking?” By questioning them, it offers the opportunity for them to analyse and take account of their behaviours before going down a formal route. 

At this point, it’s pertinent to mention the “bystander” effect, which refers to when people witness exclusionary behaviours but fail to speak up or challenge, whether through fear of repercussions, lack of reporting processes or lack of anonymity. It’s important that organisations have a clear process that allows employees to feel safe and supported when reporting incidents.

“Being consciously inclusive is the catalyst for change. While awareness of unconscious bias is essential, it is only the first step. When we actively and intentionally embrace diversity, dismantle barriers and create safe spaces where all voices are heard, we make our world truly equitable and inclusive. It is not just about recognising bias, it’s about creating a workplace culture where bias has no place. You need to feel it; it needs to be tangible and real for your people”, concludes Peter.

For more information on unconscious bias or our evidence-led training programmes, please contact us


Peter MacDonald Hall

Peter is a highly regarded subject matter expert in the fields of workplace diversity and inclusion, unconscious bias, and inclusive leadership. Having collaborated extensively with a wide array of organisations, his expertise extends to crafting comprehensive global and regional ED&I strategies for clients.