Are you biased against certain people? It may not be intentional, but each of us holds various positive and negative subconscious beliefs about different groups and characteristics, which often involve race, religion, age, gender, gender identity, social class, sexual orientation, physical abilities and weight.
If left unaddressed, unconscious bias can wreak havoc on your organization, so it’s important to recognize when there is bias in the workplace.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious biases, also known as implicit biases, are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Implicit biases can begin developing during early to middle childhood. They are influenced by outside sources such as societal beliefs and cultural context, as well as by a person’s background, family and personal experiences.
Although unconscious bias starts early, it is malleable, so you can take steps toward minimizing the impact on others.
Examples of unconscious bias
Unconscious biases are often personal, but they can also affect our professional lives, especially in terms of workplace diversity, equity and inclusion.
Here are some common unconscious biases and examples of how each one might appear in a work setting:
- Affinity bias: Preferring one job candidate or employee over another because they are similar to you
- Age bias: Assuming an older job candidate or employee doesn’t know how to use technology and is resistant to learning new skills
- Authority bias: Following someone else’s lead just because they’re in a position of authority over you, even if they’re outside their area of expertise
- Beauty bias: Hiring an unqualified applicant because you think they’re good-looking
- Gender bias: Unconsciously associating certain stereotypes with different genders, such as assuming that a male would be better for a leadership role than an equally qualified female or that a female would be better for an administrative role than an equally qualified male
- Halo/horn bias: Having an overall positive or negative impression of someone based on a single quality or trait, such as the university they attended or who they know
- LGBTQ+ bias: Assuming a colleague is in an opposite-sex relationship and asking if they have a husband or wife
- Name bias: Choosing to interview a candidate with an Anglo-sounding name (e.g., Brian Smith) over a more-qualified candidate with a non-Anglo-sounding name (e.g., Julio Hernandez)
- Proximity bias: Giving special projects or promotions to employees who work in the office, as opposed to remote workers, due to their proximity to you
- Recency bias: Placing greater importance on recent events, such as preferring the most recent candidate you interview because you remember them the best
- Weight bias: Preferring an athletic-looking job candidate as opposed to a more qualified candidate that is significantly overweight or underweight
Unconscious bias often leads to confirmation bias, which is the act of forming an opinion about a person or an idea and then directly seeking out or recognizing the information that confirms your belief. This can be especially harmful during the hiring process. For example, if a hiring manager has an unconscious bias in favor of male candidates for a leadership role, they might evaluate the male applicants more positively and seek out faults in the female candidates.
Unconscious bias is similar to employment discrimination, but the primary difference is that it happens without someone realizing it. Unconscious bias itself is not illegal, but it can lead to workplace discrimination, which is illegal.
The impact of unconscious bias in the workplace
Unconscious bias isn’t illegal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not harmful to your organization. Implicit bias is especially detrimental if it goes undetected, as it can permeate your entire workforce and affect your recruitment and hiring process, company culture, leadership development, employee retention and more.
Hiring and recruitment
In the hiring process, unconscious bias can lead employers to weed out great candidates who otherwise would have been a perfect fit for the company. Hiring people based on biases can diminish the quality and diversity of your team. It has been proven time and time again that improving workplace diversity and inclusion is great for business, especially in leadership roles. Differing opinions are also a boon for creativity, innovation and problem-solving.
Unconscious bias disproportionately affects women and people of color during hiring and recruitment. For example, name bias, gender bias, halo bias, horn bias and affinity bias can cause your recruiters and hiring managers to eliminate great people of color and female candidates before even interviewing them. If these job seekers do get interviews, unconscious biases can continue to affect their chances of getting the job during the rest of the hiring process.
A Greenhouse study found that female interviewees are almost 20 percent more likely to be asked illegal interview questions than males are, and Black interviewees are over 25 percent more likely to experience illegal practices than white interviewees are.
Company culture and retention
In addition to influencing hiring practices, unconscious bias can affect your current workforce. Implicit biases may cause some individuals to receive preferential treatment over more qualified colleagues. For example, they may receive learning and development opportunities, promotions, raises or special projects. This is not only bad for developing future company leadership, but it can also breed resentment, hurt your company culture and cause top-notch employees to quit, thereby increasing your turnover.
Identifying and preventing unconscious bias
You won’t be able to eradicate unconscious bias from your business, but there are a few steps you can take to minimize its impact in the workplace.
1. Educate yourself and your employees about unconscious bias.
The first step in preventing unconscious bias is to acknowledge it exists. Host a meeting or training session with your employees to teach them what unconscious bias is, and then challenge them to identify their own biases.
You can learn a little about your own unconscious biases by taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT) on various identity types. However, some IAT critics say these tests are too limited and, therefore, not entirely accurate, so perhaps take your results with a grain of salt.
2. Remove potential biases from your recruitment process.
There are several ways you can work toward removing unconscious biases from your recruitment process. In job descriptions and interviews, for example, you can use neutral, inclusive language that doesn’t favor a certain gender, age or other identity groups. To reduce biases based on appearances, conduct phone-screen interviews to initially assess candidates without seeing them first.
When you’re interviewing candidates in person or virtually, it’s critical to formulate a structured discussion with a standardized set of interview questions used for all applicants. This not only reduces bias and discrimination but is also a great way to get a side-by-side comparison of candidates’ qualifications and achievements.
It’s also beneficial to have a diverse panel of interviewers or to have each candidate undergo multiple rounds of interviewing with different workers so that you can aggregate various opinions and evaluate candidates holistically. When you assess each applicant, use objective, standardized evaluation criteria.
3. Remove potential biases from your performance management process.
Having a fair and equitable performance management process is essential to employee development, growth and satisfaction. Create a standardized method to measure and evaluate employee performance, which can then be used to make informed decisions on development opportunities, special projects, promotions and raises. This company-wide process can help prevent managers from making critical decisions about their direct reports based on implicit biases.
4. Integrate DEI into your company culture.
Successful diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives can take time to implement, but they are well worth the effort. You can use anonymous feedback surveys to gain honest employee insight about what’s working in your organization and what can be improved.
One way to integrate DEI into your company is to create employee resource groups, also known as diversity groups or affinity groups. These employee-led groups allow co-workers to come together with others based on shared characteristics or life experiences. Increasing DEI efforts and training workers on unconscious biases can help create a workplace culture that understands unconscious biases and actively works to prevent them.