Unconscious bias in School Business Management

    Published: 12 November 2020

    At Herts for Learning we recently had our second virtual staff conference. One of the speakers was Dr. Pragya Agarwal who spoke to us about unconscious bias. It was an inspiring and motivational presentation which made me realise just how unconsciously bias we can be as a human race and where some of these prejudices come from. If you get the chance, I highly recommend her book ‘Sway: unravelling unconscious bias’.

    Unconscious biases can cause unintentional discrimination, they are the underlying attitudes and stereotypes that we have unconsciously formed based on our personal experiences, background and culture. They can be both positive and negative and affect the way we engage with another person or group of people.  Unconscious bias occurs when we favour someone who shares our values, for example, we may favour a person with a similar educational background to ours. We tend to be drawn to people who look like us, who share the same colour or ethnicity.

    Unconscious Bias Theory suggests:

    • It is part of human nature
    • It is unintentional
    • It can impact our decisions
    • It increases with stress or tiredness
    • It can be overcome

    I wanted to look at some examples of unconscious bias that we may experience in our roles as Business Management professionals and how we can avoid them. The most obvious area is HR and Recruitment, but it can occur throughout the key elements of business management.


    Names - Herts for Learning has recently introduced ‘nameless’ applications (until the interview stage). It is remarkable and somewhat shocking that as professionals we make judgements on people just by reading their name!

    University – do you ever look at where someone’s degree is from and make a judgement?

    School – do you know the school they attended? Does the reputation of the school reflect in your judgement of that person? Did you go to the same school and therefore share an affinity.

    Gut feeling – how often do you say “it’s just a gut feeling”? This may be your unconscious bias at work, your brain uses shortcuts to make decisions quickly based on information it has received over time, but this is not the best way to recruit staff. Appointments should be well thought out, fair and based on factual evidence. Conscious decisions are controlled and well-reasoned.

    PR and communications

    It is important when dealing with parents, governors and other stakeholders that we communicate effectively. Unconscious bias can affect how we communicate with others, less friendly behaviours and body language are easily picked up on. Consciously consider using inclusive language that does not stereotype or demean people based on personal characteristics including gender, gender expression, race, ethnicity, economic background, ability/disability status, religion, sexual orientation, etc. It is also important to consider your audience and what unconscious biases they may possess. This is really about human nature and understanding our own bias helps us to understand and empathise with our audience.

    Financial resources

    Unconscious Bias can lead us to identify with what is familiar, it can prevent us from considering new information or other perspectives and ideas. By creating checklists and criteria for our procedures and processes we can mitigate for unconscious bias.

    Purchasing – do you always order the same items from the same supplier because you perceive then to be superior and more reasonable than others? Are these decisions based on fact or historic information? Have you priced checked, looked at reviews, and tested other suppliers for performance, quality, price and reliability? Try discussing your decisions with a colleague, collective decision making is more reliable and less likely to be influenced by your own bias.

    Premises, health and safety

    Risk Assessments - Left to their own devices, people tend to gravitate to inaccurate risk assessment due to their assumptions and biases. We need to ensure that these are eliminated and create risk assessments which mitigate for human error and biases using checklists and agreed criteria. For example, a piece of play equipment or area of the playground that has never caused an accident. We perceive it to be safe and assume there is no danger. Evidence based risk assessment may identify a hazard not yet experienced.

    • Identify the hazard
    • Decide who may be harmed and how
    • Evaluate the risks and decide on control measures
    • Record your findings
    • Review the risk assessment
    • Governance

    Here are some points to remember and try to mitigate for when trying to introduce new policies or procedures:

    • People tend to believe what is repeated often
    • People (generally) do not like to ‘stand out’ so tend to go along with the majority – rightly or wrongly
    • People will ignore relevant information if it conflicts with their own bias or beliefs
    • People generally want to be right
    • People generally do not like change

    While unconscious bias isn’t intentional, we do need to address it - and the best way to do this is to be aware of it; slow down your thinking, don’t rush to judgements and take time to think through decisions carefully. Record and evidence the reasons for your decisions. Try to focus on peoples positive attributes and do not rely on stereotypes, particularly negative ones. Unless we champion change, change will not happen and every Business Management professional can play their role in championing change.

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