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Unconscious bias and losing potential customers - it's not just an internal business issue

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A guest blog by Hayley Barnard, MD of MIX Diversity and corporate D&I speaker.

I recently visited a high street bank for a pre-arranged meeting about moving across some of our business and currency accounts. My husband came with me as we planned to go out for lunch afterwards. I alerted the cashier of my arrival and stood waiting on the highly polished marble floor for the business manager to whisk me away to one of those characterless cupboard-sized rooms they have off to the side in banks.  From a combination-coded door near the cashier, out strode the business manager, but he bypassed me and held out his hand in greeting to my husband. 

“Mr Barnard, lovely to meet you, I hear you are looking to open some new accounts.” 

This is unconscious bias in practice. He didn’t mean to be discriminatory but he made a split second decision: a business owner looking to open a number of currency accounts would be a man, not a woman.

Unconscious bias is an inflexible belief, positive or negative, about a particular category of people. And whilst we may be aware of some of our biases, a growing body of research shows that we also harbour powerful unconscious or hidden biases too.

Bias is a labour-saving device. It enables us to form an opinion without having to dig up the facts. We instinctively assume about people based on our own stereotypes, rather than on thoughtful judgment. We form biases based on all sorts of criteria, such as gender, skin tone, appearance, religion, age and so on – both positive and negative biases.

But let me be clear, unconscious bias is not the same as conscious discrimination. I’m not saying we’re all closet racists or sexists or homophobes. In fact, our unconscious thoughts can be wholly at odds with our conscious opinions. So whilst, for example, most recruiters would no-doubt be vehemently against racism, a British Government sting operation using false identities concluded that jobseekers with ‘white-sounding names’ could expect to receive one positive response for every 9 applications, whereas ‘ethnic minority candidates’ had to distribute an average of 16 CVs to obtain an interview.

Whether we like it or not, we all have our biases, or lenses, if you like, through which we view both others and ourselves. This in turn affects our behaviour. Our biases are usually displayed subtly and without pre-meditation or intention: through body language, mannerisms and conversations. They are micro-behaviours.  So the question isn’t ‘are we biased?’ The question is, ‘which ones are ours?’ Once we identify them, we can start to work to mitigate the impact they might have.

Social scientists are starting to understand that Unconscious Bias is one of the reasons that we have a lack of diversity in our businesses today, especially in more senior positions. It affects internal functions and also external ones - how we relate to customers, how we sell and how innovative we are.

Unfortunately, unlike exclusion, inclusion isn’t something that just happens so it’s encouraging to see such a trend in commitment to being inclusive by organisations we work with in the UK. It requires effort and attention  - an acceptance that the corporate world is biased against women and pro-men, for example.  

Inclusion isn’t complicated but it is difficult. Understanding we are all biased, and being prepared to hold each other accountable, is a good first step one. Step two is to move from unconscious bias to conscious inclusion so that the way we do business is with the conscious intent of including rather than the unconscious effect of excluding.

Incidentally, I decided not to move my business accounts to the high street bank mentioned at the start. Why? It wasn’t their interest rates (let’s face it, there’s no interest to be had nowadays). The local business manager and his biased behaviour put me off his bank. It’s a warning to me, as I meet potential new customers, to slow down before jumping to conclusions that could harm my business.  As I said, we all need to strive to turn our unconscious biases into conscious inclusion.


Hayley Barnard will be speaking at a special event for The Consultancy Group in celebration of International Women’s Day 2017. At 6pm on Thursday 9th March you are invited to a one hour talk on Unconscious Bias and Diversity & Inclusion.  Aimed at HR professionals including HR Directors and Managers and Talent Acquisition Managers, the event will provide some of the latest thinking on the topic. If you would like to attend please contact Matthew Whipp on or 020 3695 0434.