Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Author Headshot Written by Liz McDermott

Unconscious Bias Training for the Workplace

Unconscious bias is the tendency for our minds to automatically associate positive or negative ideas with a person, group, or situation. It’s a normal part of human cognition that has been proven to be a real phenomenon.

The problem comes when these associations are negative or biased toward a certain group of people (often based on things like race, color, gender, age, or appearance). These subtle prejudices are often referred to as micro-aggressions and can have a major impact on hiring practices and workplace culture.

Unconscious bias at work is also known as implicit bias, hidden bias, and unseen bias. If you work in HR, recruitment, employee relations, or management, it’s important to understand how unconscious bias can affect your workplace. Keep reading for more information about what unconscious bias at work means and how you can combat its potentially negative effects.


What is Unconscious Bias in the Workplace?


Unconscious bias at work is an automatic association between an individual or group and a positive or negative feeling. These associations can either be accurate or inaccurate and can have a major impact on hiring practices and workplace culture. Unconscious bias can be based on things like race, color, gender, age, or appearance. For example, you might have an association between Asian people and being good at math or between women and being nurturing. These associations are often referred to as micro-aggressions because they are so subtle that you may not even realize you have them or the impact they could have.

Unconscious bias can be a real problem because it can lead to discrimination against employees who are members of a negatively stereotyped group. For example, if you have a negative association with women and you decide not to hire them as often as men, then you are going against the law and your company’s policies. If you have negative beliefs about certain groups and don’t work to change them, you could be hurting your company in many ways.


Why Is Unconscious Bias a Problem?


Unconscious bias at work can impact hiring decisions, employee morale, and overall company culture. It can result in employees feeling unsupported, undervalued, or even discriminated against at work, which can lower productivity and make many people feel uncomfortable at their jobs. Unconscious bias can impact hiring decisions by leading hiring managers to choose candidates who look or act like them because of their negative associations with other groups. This could lead them to pass over qualified candidates who don’t fit their own preconceived notions about what a good employee looks like. It can also cause managers to treat employees negatively based on those same negative associations.

Unconscious bias can also impact employee morale by causing some employees to feel unsupported because their manager has negative associations with their group. This can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration, and even a high rate of employee turnover.

Professionals at large companies who experience bias in the workplace are three times as likely to feel disengaged at work, withhold ideas, and look for another job. Let's explore the different types of bias in the workplace.


The Impact of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace


We all have our biases. A bias is a set of assumptions that we make and the things we don't notice about people's race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, appearance, and other traits. Bias comes from the part of our mind that uses mental shortcuts to jump to conclusions that we might not even be aware that we have.

That kind of bias in the workplace gets in the way of good collaboration, performance, and decision-making. It creates an invisible tax of resentment and frustration. The more frustrated team members are, the more silent they are likely to be. And the more silent they are, the less they may be able to do their best work.

When employees collaborate, they use their full capacity as humans to get more done collectively than they could ever imagine accomplishing as individuals.


Types of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace


For the last couple of years, BuiltIn has kept a list of unconscious bias examples and how to avoid them. We have listed most of them below, but make sure to check out their website.

  • Affinity: leads people to gravitate toward people with similar interests, backgrounds, and appearances
  • Confirmation bias: influences people to seek and lean toward information that validates their beliefs or values
  • Attribution: when people make judgments and assumptions about why people behave in certain ways
  • Conformity: occurs when we face peer pressure or are trying to fit into a particular environment
  • The halo effect: when the overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think
  • The horns effect: when we assign negative attitudes or behaviors to people based on one aspect of their appearance or character
  • Contrast effect:  when we judge people in comparison to one another
  • Gender bias: sexism
  • Racial bias: racism
  • Ageism: discrimination based on age
  • Name: the tendency to prefer Anglo-sounding names over others
  • Beauty: how we perceive others based on their physical attractiveness
  • Height: when we treat people differently because of their height
  • Anchor: when we rely on the first piece of information we are given about someone
  • Nonverbal: the transmission of signals such as eye contact, facial expressions, and gestures
  • Authority: placing greater influence on an authority figure
  • Overconfidence: a tendency to hold a false and misleading assessment of our skills, intellect, or talent


4 Steps to Disrupting Unconscious Bias in the Workplace


When we are silent about bias, we reinforce it. It can't be just the targets of bias who point it out. Observers and leaders have got to speak up – we all have a responsibility. By making a practice of disrupting bias quickly and kindly, we prevent it from metastasizing into something worse, like prejudice, bullying, discrimination, or harassment.

The Way We Work, a TED Series, describes a 3 step framework for disrupting biases in the workplace, which, broken down into 4 steps, opens the discussion to grow human relationships through empathy and communication.

  1. Create a common phrase or word to disrupt biased attitudes and behaviors. Work with your team to define that shared word or phrase. It could even be a peace sign people raise during meetings.
  2. Respond with "I" statements to invite the other person in to understand things from your perspective rather than calling them out. This step opens up communication. For example: "I" feel like [blank] when you say [blank]. It's important for employees to feel comfortable talking about biases.
  3. Create a shared norm for how to respond when your bias is pointed out to move past shame. 
  4. Commit to disrupting bias regularly, at least once in meetings. Silence reinforces bias, so it's important for everyone to be accountable for keeping this top of mind in order for everyone to learn and grow. 

Disrupting Unconscious Bias in the Workplace


How to Individually Combat Unconscious Bias at Work


To combat unconscious bias in the workplace, you need to be aware of your own biases and make an effort to correct them. You can do this by keeping a journal, talking to people about their experiences, and seeking out diverse perspectives and experiences.

Keep a Conscious Awareness Journal:
When you have a negative association with someone or something, write it down. This can help you become more aware of your own biases. When you keep a journal, you can also look back over your thoughts at different points in time to see if your associations change over time.

Practice Diversity and Inclusion by Talking to People About Their Experiences:
Ask people who come from different backgrounds than you about their experiences and what it’s like to be part of their group. Not only will this help you become more aware of the challenges they face, but it can also help you become more empathetic.

Seek Out Diverse Perspectives and Experiences:
When you can seek out different perspectives, especially those of people who come from different backgrounds, you can also look for events and books that discuss different perspectives. Finally, create an environment at work that encourages different perspectives and experiences.


Examples of How Unconscious Biases Manifests in the Workplace


Unconscious biases can result in negative behavior at work, including a hiring process that discriminates against certain groups, a less productive business environment, and leaders who don’t support their employees as well as they could.

Discrimination in the Hiring Process
Hiring bias against certain groups based on stereotypes can lead recruiters to pass over qualified candidates and instead hold interviews with those who look like them or have similar backgrounds. This weakens the recruitment process and results in a team that doesn’t have a full range of skills and perspectives.

A Negative Work Environment
Implicit bias can also cause employees who feel unsupported by their managers or who experience discrimination to feel isolated, frustrated, and disengaged at work. These feelings could lead to a negative work culture where people don’t want to be there and aren’t thriving.

Team Leaders who Don’t Support their Employees
If a team leader has negative associations with certain groups, they may not feel equipped to support their employees who are part of those groups. For example, if a manager has negative associations with women and their future promotion to upper management, they may not support female employees as well as they could.


Conclusion: Unconscious Bias Training Pays Off


Unconscious biases at work can cause real harm to a company’s productivity, hiring practices, and culture. It’s important to be aware of your own biases and take steps to correct them in order to fight against unconscious biases in the workplace. It’s important to remember that you can’t change employees' biases, but you can change how they act on them.

Unconscious bias training can help businesses improve decision-making by providing knowledge resources for employees to be aware of their unconscious behavior and make the workplace more inclusive. 

For more information, please contact us to inquire about our Unconscious Bias training.