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What is unconscious bias in the workplace?

Last updated

27 September 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Shawnna Johnson

Young people are great with technology. Boys are disruptive. Men make better CEOs. These are all examples of unconscious bias—thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs that occur due to social conditioning and stereotypes.

While it’s common knowledge that discrimination in the workplace is unacceptable, many of these biases occur without people even realizing. Even so, these beliefs have a big impact on your perceptions of others and the decisions you make.

Unconscious bias in the workplace can prevent diversity. It can also cause some candidates to be unfairly favored over others and ultimately restricts the success of teams and wider organizations.

In this article, we’ll look at some examples of unconscious bias and how to overcome it.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is a set of learned attitudes or assumptions that impact you without you knowing. It relates to your views or the social stereotypes you believe about other people or groups.

Although many of us would like to believe that we’re unaffected by biases, everyone has them, whether they know it or not.

In fact, according to the University of California San Francisco’s Office of Diversity and Outreach, unconscious biases can be more common than conscious biases.

The Office explains: “Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing. Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values.”

Unconscious bias can have ramifications in many areas. It can impact hiring choices in the workplace, the content people choose to consume, where people choose to live, and even how people vote. Ultimately, it impacts every part of society.

How does unconscious bias form?

Unconscious bias forms naturally as we grow up. All the things we’re exposed to gradually create our view of the world. These views are accumulated due to our upbringing, exposure to different media outlets, where we live, our ethnic and cultural background, and events that we’re a part of, among other things.

For example, let’s say you always hear about crimes being committed by a particular racial group on the news. This might trigger you to unconsciously assume that all members of this race commit crimes or that people in this racial group are more likely to commit crimes. The truth is typically more nuanced than that. The news, the police force, and society at large may be unconsciously biased toward people in this racial group, exaggerating the chances of crime occurring. Unfortunately, this can cause a cyclic problem.

If you are unaware of your biases, they will play out when you interact with others and when you make decisions.

The dangers of unconscious bias at work

Unconscious bias can be very problematic in the workplace. It can lead to unfair decision-making and mistreatment of some workers. It can also perpetuate disadvantages for many minority groups.

Relying on biases can reduce diversity in an organization’s workforce. This, in turn, leads to less diverse viewpoints, creativity, and innovation within organizations. Diversity promotes productivity, employee engagement, innovation, and revenue, so it’s critical to your organization’s success.

A study by McKinsey found that companies with gender diversity were 21% more likely to have above-average productivity. The research also showed that teams with more female executives performed better financially. Ethnic and cultural diversity were also shown to correlate strongly with profitability.

Types of unconscious bias and how to overcome it

The first step to overcoming unconscious bias is becoming aware of it. Otherwise, biases are simply too easy to perpetuate unintentionally.

There are many commonly occurring forms of bias in the workplace. Let’s take a look at some unconscious bias examples and how to overcome unconscious bias.

Gender bias

Gender bias commonly occurs when certain stereotypes or historical roles are associated with genders. It comes about when male candidates and common male qualities are favored over female candidates in the workplace.

Gender bias could occur in many scenarios. Consider the example of a board of directors deciding between two candidates for their CEO: a woman and a man. The board chooses the male over the female even though they both have similar skills and experience on the assumption that the man will be stronger and more assertive and will perform better.

Gender bias can cause inequality in organizations, create a hierarchical structure, and lead to a hugely problematic gender wage gap. As of 2022, on average, women in the US earn 17% less than men.

How to avoid gender bias

Avoiding perpetuating gender bias is critical, regardless of whether it occurs in the workplace, on the sports field, in a community group, or even within a household.

Here are some key ways to avoid gender bias:

  • Becoming aware of where you may hold gender bias.

  • Making positive choices to treat all people, regardless of their gender, fairly and equally.

  • Setting standards at work to ensure all candidates are treated fairly. This might include things like extending paternity leave to ensure fathers can assist with parenting duties, creating diversity quotas to ensure teams are balanced and representative of society, or balancing genders at the top level to create a fair and diverse working environment from the top down.

Age bias 

Age bias, or ageism, happens when younger people are favored over older adults or are held in higher regard.

This often occurs in the workplace, where younger candidates may be hired on the assumption that they are high-energy workers with strong technical abilities. Meanwhile, older workers may be overlooked, even if they bring years of experience and know-how. 

Unfortunately, age bias appears to be a big workplace issue. An AARP survey found that two out of three adults aged 45 years or older had experienced discrimination at work due to their age.

How to avoid age bias 

Unlike many societies, it has become common in Western cultures to value youth over age and experience. To avoid age bias it can be helpful to

  • Become aware of your own age-related biases at work or in society in general.

  • Conduct a review of your organization’s demographics to determine if there’s an issue.

  • Create policies at work that promote a diversely aged workforce, ensuring that older workers are hired, promoted, and valued.

  • Provide training to all employees that teaches the value and benefit of hiring employees of all ages.

Racial bias 

This bias may occur when a person is discriminated against due to their race or cultural background.

Racial bias in the workplace is common. Gallup statistics have found that one in four Black and Hispanic workers have reported experiencing discrimination at work. This might occur when a Caucasian candidate is favored or when a candidate from a Hispanic background is not promoted even though their experience is sufficient for a more senior role.

How to avoid racial bias

  • Train employees to recognize racial bias when and where it occurs.

  • Use technology to remove demographic information from hiring applications to encourage hiring decisions based on skills and experience instead of race and culture.

  • Implement diversity goals to encourage hiring and promoting employees from minority backgrounds.

  • Establish and encourage employee resource groups so that employees can share their backgrounds and experiences.

  • Offer training and development programs with racially diverse participation.

Confirmation bias 

Confirmation bias can be particularly problematic for your ideas and attitudes about society. This bias is the psychological propensity to affirm information and situations that align with your current beliefs. This can mean cherry-picking events, information, and ideas that boost your sense of the world but limit your chance of gaining diverse views.

Confirmation bias can occur even when data or statistics refute your beliefs. It’s particularly problematic as it reassures your beliefs rather than helping you expand your worldview.

How to avoid confirmation bias

  • Be open to being wrong. When you are entrenched in your views, you restrict your ability to learn, grow, and see things from new perspectives.

  • At work, gain information from multiple sources before making important decisions.

  • Encourage diverse opinions from team members. Make sure everyone on the team has had an opportunity to weigh in.

  • Support research- and data-driven decision-making.

Conformity bias (“group think”)

Imagine you attend a meeting only to have your manager railroad the conversation and pitch a new direction. You don’t agree with it, but your teammates appear to be going along with the change. The question is: are you brave enough to openly disagree?

Peer pressure is incredibly powerful. Many people find that conforming with the group, even if it goes against their beliefs, is easier than sticking their neck out.

If you have conformity bias, you will tend to agree with the group mindset. This limits your ideas, creativity, and differences and can severely inhibit innovation in the workplace.

How to avoid conformity bias 

  • Encourage a culture of sharing and questioning within the organization to encourage your employees to speak up and say what they really think. This also means giving all team members the opportunity to have their say.

  • Use anonymous contribution options or surveys to gain an accurate understanding of how team members actually feel before they can be swayed by the group.

  • Encourage and reward healthy conflict and debate.

Name bias

Name bias occurs when people prefer or value certain names over others. A common and problematic name bias is when Anglo-sounding names are favored over those from other cultural backgrounds.

Name bias may occur when names are hard for Westerners to pronounce and when they are associated with a particular cultural group or country. This may lead managers or employees to make negative or unhelpful assumptions about that person.

Name bias can lead companies to miss out on hiring talented candidates from diverse backgrounds, limiting the candidates and the organizations themselves.

How to avoid name bias

  • Become aware of the assumptions you make about someone based on their name.

  • In the workplace, ensure candidates are considered based on their qualifications and experience, not on their name or cultural background.

  • Technology that removes candidates’ names from the application process can help you ensure decisions are based on skills and experience alone.

  • Use diverse interview and selection panels to ensure diversity is prioritized in hiring decision-making.

The halo effect 

Another lesser-known unconscious bias is the halo effect—a term coined by Edward Thorndike. The halo effect refers to an impression of someone based on particular favorable qualities or traits. Other less impressive qualities or characteristics may be overlooked.

We often see the halo effect with celebrities and sports stars who excel in a particular field. They may receive preferential treatment in general society even if they have characteristics that would be viewed as undesirable.

The effect can also occur in the workplace where a candidate has attended a prestigious school or received a top award but may not have the qualities they need to excel in the role.

How to avoid the halo effect 

  • When hiring, ensure people have the experience they need for the role. Don’t let one stand-out achievement cloud your judgment.

  • Use a structured hiring and evaluation process that considers a candidate’s skills, performance, and background and weighs them against a scoring system. Allow multiple people to take part in the assessment.

  • Use a standard performance evaluation program so that all employees are assessed on the same criteria. Don’t overvalue a particular employee or put someone on a pedestal.

The horns effect

The horns effect is on the other end of the spectrum to the halo effect. This occurs when you focus too much on one negative attribute and overlook a person’s other important characteristics or achievements. 

The horns effect could influence a hiring decision if a candidate was previously laid off. This could disadvantage them if the hirer assumes they were not successful in their previous role. In reality, the decision may have been out of their control. The prospective employee may possess all the skills they need to succeed in your role. 

How to avoid the horns effect 

  • While assessing negative traits is important, make sure you challenge your first impressions to develop a holistic understanding of the person.

  • Negative events can be situational and the result of many factors, so be sure to ask questions and gather more information.

  • Base hiring and other work-related decisions on evidence, not assumptions.

  • Use a structured hiring process that evaluates several criteria over a period of time.

  • Utilize 360-degree feedback when delivering performance assessments.

Recency bias 

This bias occurs when recent events are seen as more important than those that happened further in the past. This is usually because recent events are easier to recall and therefore feel more relevant.

However, recent events shouldn’t dictate decisions. Decisions should be backed by data.

Recency bias could lead a team to make bad choices, such as abandoning a historically successful project over one recent mishap. It could also occur in the hiring process where decisions are made based on one recent interview—not all interviews collectively.

How to avoid recency bias

  • Don’t make decisions based on assumptions or recent events. Instead, base them on data and accurate information.

  • The human memory can be unreliable. To boost accuracy in decision-making, take notes, measure events, and collate data for a better analysis.

  • For performance reviews, look back at a standard period (for example, 12 months) rather than relying too heavily on current performance.

Status quo bias

The status quo bias is a preference for wanting things to stay the same. Some people are quite wary of change—even if it promises to improve their lives.

Following the status quo may feel safer, but it can cause stagnation within an organization and reduce creativity and innovation. 

The status quo bias could occur when one leader has always made all the decisions without using data. Team members may hesitate to rock the boat, even if current methods and approaches are suppressing financial success.

How to avoid status quo bias

  • Encourage a culture of change across the business to inspire teams to constantly improve.

  • Boost education in change management to help employees navigate and feel more comfortable with continual improvements.

  • Involve employees in the communication and planning of change.

  • Be sure to discuss the benefits of change and the consequences of not changing.

How do you identify unconscious bias?

Identifying unconscious bias can be challenging because it relates to long-held beliefs, attitudes, and preferences that we are unaware of.

Education about common biases can help people identify where unconscious bias occurs. Pay attention to commonly held beliefs, question first impressions about others, and become curious about how you may treat people differently.

In the workplace, using technology can help remove bias from the hiring process. Unconscious bias training for employees can also help highlight where bias may occur.

The critical need for unconscious bias training

Unconscious bias is just that—unconscious—so it’s essential to raise awareness. Unconscious bias training can be helpful for highlighting unconscious bias and teaching strategies to avoid it. This will help ensure bias does not dictate decision-making or inhibit diversity.

Creating a dynamic and diverse workforce

For an organization to be truly innovative, deliver on employee experience, and satisfy customers’ changing needs, you’ll need to have a workforce that’s not only diverse but dynamic, too.

Bringing unconscious bias to the workplace can hamper diversity and kill creativity. In contrast, teams that are diverse in gender, race, name, and cultural background and encouraged to challenge the status quo are more likely to drive change and bring new ideas. This will boost the success of the business as a whole.

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