No matter how difficult it can be to admit, unconscious biases influence a vast majority of our decisions. Our brains can consciously process 40 pieces of information per second — while we unconsciously process 11 million pieces. So, in order to keep up with all of the stimuli around us, we create mental shortcuts that ostensibly make decision-making easier.
Unfortunately, many of these shortcuts do more harm than good. A 2017 study on gender bias from Harvard Business Review found that while men and women’s behaviors at work are almost indistinguishable, they are treated very differently by others. This means that even when people are acting the same way (speaking up during the same meetings, collaborating with the same colleagues, getting the same face-time with leaders), their behaviors are perceived differently — and rewarded inequitably — leading to unfair outcomes at work.
“While programs aimed at strengthening women’s leadership skills are valuable, companies also need to focus on the more fundamental — and more difficult — problem of reducing bias,” the report said.
If unconscious biases aren't kept in check, organizations and the employees that power them might let these biases influence their decisions in a way negatively affects workers based on their race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other protected attributes. Understanding and addressing unconscious bias are two of the first steps to creating a more inclusive workplace.
What Is Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) is a person’s tendency to make judgments based upon social stereotypes about groups of people that are formed without necessarily realizing it. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about others because humans have a tendency to categorize or organize their understandings of other people.
Yet the people who are subjected to these biases are often consciously aware they are being discriminated against, and may not feel safe enough to speak up or push back for fear of retribution. Because people may not be aware of their biases towards others, it’s crucial to create awareness and address unconscious bias in order to mitigate harm they cause others.
Examples of Unconscious Bias
Biases can take many shapes, and may often seem harmless to people who are not affected by them. However, people who identify with one or more marginalized groups are at increased risk of experiencing harmful outcomes due to discrimination from biased colleagues.
Employees at every level of an organization need to be familiar with different types of unconscious bias, and provided with resources about how to prevent and reduce discrimination in the workplace.
1. Affinity Bias
Affinity bias is a tendency to gravitate toward people with similar qualities or attributes. This can lead to homogenous social groups or hiring processes that exclude diverse candidates.
A 2017 study on hiring practices by the University of Toronto found that candidates with foreign-sounding names on their resumes were 28% less likely to be called into an interview than candidates with “Anglo” sounding names. A 2003 study by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research found that candidates with “white-sounding names” were 50% more likely to get callbacks for interviews than candidates with “Black-sounding names.” Despite their best intentions, hiring managers may be guilty of being influenced by similar biases that preclude them from interviewing a more diverse set of candidates.
Companies also often tend to hire candidates who’ve worked at specific companies or schools. For example, tech companies based in Silicon Valley are most likely to hire candidates who went to UC Berkeley. This is an example of the similarity bias, which says that we tend to enjoy working with people who are similar to us.
2. Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias happens when people tend to look for information that confirms their beliefs and overlook information that goes against them. This type of bias affects how people collect and perceive new information, but also how they recall and interpret past experiences.
For example, if an employee had a preconceived belief that older workers aren’t skilled at using new technology, then they may react negatively when their tenured colleagues have questions about using a new software, compared to a more positive reaction when younger or newer colleagues need help with learning the same thing. The result is unfair treatment of people in the workplace based on an unfounded belief, and may lead to some employees feeling nervous to ask for help.
3. Conformity Bias
Conformity bias occurs when people behave like those around them instead of relying on their own judgment or critical thinking. In a group setting such as a work meeting, people may feel inclined to agree with others’ ideas even if they haven’t spent time considering the outcomes.
This is also called groupthink, and can be detrimental to innovation when the majority of people overlook the same opportunities, or if they all choose to ignore a glaring issue that requires at least one person to push back.
4. Gender Bias
Gender bias occurs when a person is treated differently based on their gender identity or gender expression. At the office, an assertive woman might be perceived as “aggressive” while a man with the same attributes might be described as “confident.”
One recent study, for example, found that male scientists were likely to place more value on the opinions of their male colleagues than their female colleagues. Another example of harmful gender bias is the concept of ‘a-bro-priating,’ when men take credit for women’s ideas by saying it louder or to a larger group of people without giving credit to the person who originally brought it up.
Companies that enable gender bias will risk the engagement levels of women and non-binary employees, discourage them from sharing their valuable ideas, and brand themselves as an unsafe workplace for gender minorities.
5. The Halo Effect
Coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike in the 1920s, the halo effect means that people who think highly of an individual in a certain way are likely to think highly of them in several other ways. So if people think someone is good looking, they’ll probably also think they are intelligent and charismatic. Managers need to be wary of generalizing an employee’s performance based on one specific characteristic of their personality or appearance.
They need to also understand that just because someone might have done an A-plus job on a project six months ago doesn’t necessarily mean that person is still contributing as effectively. (The opposite effect is called the “horns effect:” Just because someone dropped the ball once doesn’t mean they’re incapable of improving.)
Micro-aggressions are discriminatory statements or behaviors directed toward a person who is part of a marginalized group based on their race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, or other traits.
These statements are often subtle, thinly veiled comments about a person’s immutable traits — sometimes unnoticeable to most people in a group — except to the people they’re directed toward, which makes them even harder to point out. It can be difficult to decide whether to point them out or to walk away, but when left unaddressed, they often leave the most vulnerable people feeling the most uncomfortable and unsafe.
7. Body-Shaming and Ableism
Implicit beliefs about people’s bodies such as negative attitudes about weight, size, and ability create workplace environments where employees with different body types or abilities feel uncomfortable in their own skin. Research from The Institute for Employment Studies found evidence of an “aesthetic labour market,” where employers seek out specific characteristics in candidates such as being attractive or outgoing.
Beyond the hiring process, many workplaces are not designed to enable or accommodate the needs of people with larger bodies, people with disabilities, or people using assistive technology. This means even if they are hired, they still face many levels of bias from organizations and colleagues.
10 Steps to Eliminate Unconscious Bias
While it’s unrealistic to completely eradicate all biases, we can take meaningful steps to reduce the harmful effects of bias and discrimination in the workplace. Use these ten steps to address unconscious bias in your organization.
1. Learn what unconscious biases are.
Make employees across all levels of your organization are aware that biases exist. “Awareness training is the first step to unraveling unconscious bias because it allows employees to recognize that everyone possesses them and to identify their own,” explains Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School.
2. Assess which biases are most likely to affect you.
Take an assessment — such as Harvard’s popular Implicit Association Test—to figure out which of your perceptions are most likely to be governed by unconscious biases. Armed with that information, you can take proactive steps to address them on a personal basis.
3. Determine how biases are likely to affect your company.
Biases tend to affect who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets raises, and who gets what kind of work. Do an internal analysis of touch points across the employee lifecycle to identify areas where workers may be more vulnerable to biases from their colleagues.
By knowing where bias is most likely to creep in, you can take steps to ensure that biases are considered when important decisions are made, such as making your compensation strategies more equitable.
4. Train employees to identify and combat bias.
Unconscious bias trainings are an organizational strategy that People teams can roll out annually for employees across the company. As a crucial aspect of learning and development programs, these trainings can help align company-wide initiatives to create a more inclusive workplace, while empowering employees to reduce bias in their day-to-day work.
If your company has Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), give them input on how bias trainings are incorporated into employee learning programs. If you don’t have ERGs, perhaps it’s time to create them.
5. Modernize your hiring process.
In order to make sure that unconscious biases don’t adversely impact hiring decisions, you may need to make some big changes. For example, studies show that the wording in job descriptions, can discourage women from applying for certain positions. Rework job descriptions to be more inclusive, so you’re able to draw from a wider pool of applicants.
Additionally, consider giving candidates sample assignments to see what their work contributions might look like. Finally, standardize the interview process, as unstructured interviews tend to lead to bad hiring decisions.
6. Let data inform your decisions.
If your company’s upper management echelons are only staffed by white men, unconscious biases are determining which employees are promoted. Make it a priority to diversify your management team so that more voices and backgrounds are represented.
Part of having a successful diversity, equity, and inclusion program is identifying priorities, goals and potential roadblocks to creating an inclusive workplace. Measuring progress toward those goals can help inform strategies for bringing your DE&I program to life.
7. Bring diversity into your hiring decisions.
If your goal is to hire a diverse staff, make sure that there’s diversity among the group of people tasked with hiring new employees. Otherwise, you may continue hiring the same kinds of homogenous workers — despite your best intentions.
To reduce conformity or affinity bias, try swapping the mentality of “culture fit” with “value add.” If you’re looking for candidates that fit into the culture of your organization, it’s easy to hire people with similar characteristics, backgrounds, and experiences as people who already work with you. But a “value add” mentality encourages hiring managers to think about the unique additions that each new candidate brings to the table.
8. Encourage team members to speak up about biases.
The more people involved in a decision — and the more transparent the decision-making process is — the less likely an organization will be to be affected by unconscious biases.
Create a culture that encourages open dialogue by establishing psychological safety for employees. Psychological safety occurs when people believe they won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up. In a safe environment, when employees realize a decision might have been influenced by unconscious biases, they won’t be afraid to speak up and set the record straight.
9. Hold employees accountable.
When discriminatory behaviors are brought to light, actions should be taken to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the employees affected. But steps should also be taken to ensure the offender understands the impact they had on their colleagues and their work environment.
Involving HR is a great first step, and should include documenting the incident and following workplace policies for addressing discrimination.
Sometimes, employees who were harmed by discriminatory behavior don’t wish to involve or address the offender, and that’s okay. What matters is their needs are valued, centered, and affirmed by the people they chose to tell, and that their desire for confidentiality is honored by everyone involved.
10. Set goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
From increased innovation to greater employee retention rates, there are a number of reasons why companies should focus on creating diverse workplaces. Set diversity and inclusion goals to make sure that your diversity program is more than just lip service and you actually make progress toward building a diverse team.
Consider creating a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) policy that outlines your company’s commitment to ensure a supportive, fair, and inclusive work environment. Check out our DEIB policy template for an example policy framework.
Unconscious biases affect everyone, but many colleagues experience a higher risk or vulnerability to mistreatment when those biases turn into discriminatory behavior. The sooner we accept this reality — and take proactive steps to overcome the biases that hold us back — the stronger our companies will become, and the better positioned we’ll all be to put people first.
To learn more about developing a workplace culture that treats employees as equitably, download our ebook, HR's Guide to Making Performance Management Equitable.