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Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

22 July 2020 #Employment

Earlier this month, after being criticised for comments he made about the Black Lives Matter movement, Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer made a promise during his LBC radio show that he would undertake unconscious bias training. Starmer had referred to the Black Lives Matter movement as a “moment” and was criticised for using unconscious, dismissive language. Starmer explained that he had meant to say “a defining moment”, before adding that he wanted to reduce the risk of unconscious bias and would therefore introduce unconscious bias training for all Labour officials, starting with himself.

What is unconscious bias?

ACAS describe unconscious bias as an unthinking favouring of “others who look like us or share our values”. Everyone holds unconscious biases; it is a normal part of brain function as it affords the brain a short cut to decision making, when being faced with lots of different information. However, if left unchecked, unconscious bias can result in actions being taken that are discriminatory.

How can unconscious bias impact the workplace?

Where the unconscious bias relates to a protected characteristic as set out in the Equality Act 2010, it can be discriminatory and could lead to a discrimination claim being brought. There is no differentiation in law between unconscious bias and conscious bias: a person can discriminate against someone even if they do not intend to.

Unconscious bias can also run the risk of reputational damage for an organisation. Starbucks was a prime example of this in 2018, when one of their shop managers called the police in relation to two black men who were innocently waiting in store for a friend. Over 8,000 Starbucks shops across the US were subsequently closed so that staff could undergo unconscious bias training – an attempt to salvage the company’s reputation.

Unconscious bias can raise further barriers to progress. For example, where unconscious bias seeps into recruitment and promotion processes, organisations could potentially be robbed of the opportunity to hire and promote the best talent throughout the business.

What can employers do to help overcome unconscious bias?

  • Talk about unconscious bias with staff. Whether that be organising unconscious bias training or not, an awareness of unconscious bias will help staff get into the habit of challenging their own thought processes and decision making.
  • Encourage diversity and inclusion, particularly at senior levels. The broader the range of voices at the decision-making table, the more likely those decisions will positively impact all employees, as opposed to a select few.
  • Build in countermeasures such as policies and procedures that reduce the influence of individual characteristics. Examples include: name-blind recruitment, ensuring diverse panels are used to recruit staff and, using psychometric assessments during promotion.
  • Ensure that decisions are properly considered and evidenced. This includes recording the reasons behind decisions.



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