Unconscious biases are stereotypes, attitudes, and assumptions that take place outside of conscious awareness. They may represent viewpoints that are quite different from what people think they believe. These biases perpetuate harmful stereotypes, stifle opportunities for professional growth, impact wellbeing, and cause people to overlook the talents and abilities of others and be unable to see them as they really are.
What is unconscious bias in the workplace?
Our brains are wired to seek shortcuts. When you have unconscious biases, you make snap judgments and jump to conclusions about other people in the workplace based on stereotypes, past experiences, and other preconceived notions — all without being aware of what you are doing.
Types of unconscious bias in the workplace
People may have unconscious biases based on their stereotypes and preconceived ideas about other people’s social or identity groups, including race, ethnicity, gender, age, physical abilities, sexual orientation, or religion. Unconscious biases based on physical appearance are also common in the workplace, including assumptions about people based on their height, weight, hairstyles, or clothing.
Other types of unconscious biases in the workplace include:
- Affinity bias, where you favor people who look like you or have a similar background.
- The halo effect and horns effect, where a single positive or negative trait affects how you see a person as a whole.
- Perception bias, where your assumptions and stereotypes prevent you from seeing people objectively.
- Confirmation bias, where you seek out information to confirm what you already believe is true.
- Name bias, where you make judgments about a person solely on the basis of their name before you even meet them.
Impact of unconscious bias in the workplaceUnconscious bias:
- Affects every aspect of an organization and its culture.
- Creates poor judgment about who gets recruited, hired, put on teams, and promoted.
- Erodes working relationships, productivity, creativity, innovation, professional development, and trust.
- Causes mistaken assumptions about customers.
- Affects employee evaluations, retention, and diversity efforts.
- Can lead to costly harassment and discrimination claims and lawsuits.
Benefits of overcoming unconscious bias in the workplace
Overcoming unconscious bias helps an organization:
- Hire the best people and get full use of their talents.
- Improve employee job satisfaction and retention.
- Encourage innovation.
- Meet diversity goals.
- Expand its markets.
Striving to overcome unconscious bias is also a valuable learning experience that helps develop leadership qualities.
A study conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation found that employees who work in large companies and perceive bias in the workplace are three times more likely to quit within a year, five times more likely to criticize their company on social media, and 2.5 times more likely to have recently withheld ideas at work.
Signs of unconscious bias in the workplace
Although people are not aware of their own unconscious biases, the effects of these biases are visible if you know where to look. Signs include:
- Employees in specific types of jobs or levels of the organization are disproportionately members of the same group.
- New hires tend to be members of the same groups as the people doing the hiring.
- High employee turnover, especially among members of groups that are in the minority within the organization.
Examples of unconscious bias in the workplace
Many workplace occurrences that are often taken for granted may really be examples of unconscious bias. These include:
- Women’s ideas being dismissed in meetings when the same ideas, proposed by men, are praised.
- Managers being less likely to interview applicants who have names that sound “foreign” to them.
- Qualified older employees being passed over for technology roles.
Tackling unconscious bias in the workplace
How to address unconscious bias in the workplace
Fortunately, unconscious bias can be unlearned. When you recognize that unconscious bias is affecting your organization, you need to take steps to change your organizational culture.
Steps to overcome unconscious bias in the workplace
- Provide training to employees on how to overcome unconscious bias.
- Include a diversity statement with recruitment materials.
- Have a diversity specialist look over the language in your job postings and your interview questions.
- Managers and team leaders should foster a culture of inclusivity.
- Get continual feedback from your employees.
- Increase diversity in top management.
Other types of bias in the workplace
Unconscious biases are not the only type affecting workplaces. Biases can be conscious and explicit. Sometimes people who are consciously biased try to hide their biases from others in the organization, but not always. It depends on the organization’s culture.
Final Thoughts: Unconscious bias in the workplace
Biases that operate outside of conscious awareness can have a destructive effect on every aspect of an organization. Unconscious biases can be unlearned, but it takes determination and continual effort. Training can make employees aware of their biases, and steps taken to counteract the effects of bias can create a more welcoming, fair, and productive workplace.
When it comes to your company’s benefits, make sure that they’re meeting everyone’s unique needs. Your wellbeing solution should be accessible and offer content and programming that meets people where they are with respect to interests, goals, and abilities, while covering all dimensions of wellbeing. People want to see themselves represented in the tools they use and interact with, so make sure your vendors are not demonstrating unconscious bias — they should be as committed to inclusivity in their product design and community resources as you are.