Unconscious Bias

Unconscious Bias: Examples and how to avoid them at work

First published on Friday, Sep 01, 2023

Last updated on Wednesday, Sep 06, 2023

Dealing with stereotypes, feeling excluded, being passed up for roles, low productivity, and decreased motivation are some of the negative effects of unconscious bias in the workplace. Many workplaces around the world struggle with unconscious biases, and because, as the word implies, it's unconscious, they may not recognize them or know how to handle employees who are feeling the negative effects.

As an employer, making sure your employees always feel comfortable, welcome and considered in the workplace is vital to enable them to do their best work. That's why it's important to create a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. The first step is recognizing and acknowledging everyone's unconscious biases and taking steps to reduce them.

What is unconscious bias in the workplace?

Unconscious bias shows up in many ways in everyday life. And unconscious bias in the workplace can be very damaging to employees' mental health, professional lives, and productivity.

Unconscious bias in the workplace refers to prejudices and uninformed opinions people in the workplace have about their employees or coworkers. These opinions are usually unfounded and formed without any real information. They can be influenced by past experiences, stereotypes, or presumed ideas of people's character.

The harmful effects of unconscious bias affect all areas of life in the workplace, but they are most commonly felt during the hiring process. Hiring teams don't have much information to go by when screening job applications which often leads them to rely on their implicit bias to form opinions on every candidate.

It's also important to note that unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, is different from explicit bias. With unconscious biases, people are often unaware that they have these perceptions about other groups. But explicit biases are a conscious bias where the person knows of their positive or negative perceptions of other groups.

A working group learning about how to avoid unconscious bias in the workplace

What is another word for unconscious bias?

There are many other terms that can be used to describe unconscious bias. Some of these include implicit bias, inherent bias, innate bias, natural bias, implicit prejudice, similarity bias and more. All of these terms describe the unconscious attitudes you or your employees can have towards each other.

These existing opinions are often formed early in a person's life. They can be a result of upbringing, the type of media they consume, personal experiences, societal norms or a person's innate need to find patterns in a world filled with numerous influences.

One of the best ways to overcome these implicit beliefs is through unconscious bias training.

What are the most common types of unconscious bias?

As mentioned earlier, unconscious bias comes in different forms. Some are very particular and are associated with specific people or workplaces, and other biases are more common with a large population of people having such preformed notions about others.

Some of the most common types of unconscious bias include:

  • Gender bias

  • Racial bias

  • Ageism

  • Affinity bias

  • Halo effect

  • Confirmation bias

Most people who have such biases shouldn't be victimized or blamed for them. Rather they should be encouraged to overcome them with unconscious bias training to help them identify and overcome their implicit biases.

Workplace meeting on unconscious bias

Examples of unconscious biases in the workplace

Hiring someone with the same background

A hiring manager interviews multiple candidates for an open role in the workplace. During the interview process, they learn that one of the candidates has the same educational background or similar interests as them. This knowledge influences their decision and makes them hire that particular candidate even though they aren't the most qualified for the job. Hiring managers that do this have an affinity bias.

Favoring 'better looking' employees

An employee is always late to work, never meets their deadlines and does the bare minimum required to keep their job. But, they are conventionally attractive and always show up to work looking their best. When it's time for a promotion, this employee is given a pay raise and elevated to a senior role. The employee has benefitted from beauty bias.

Having low expectations

An employee was prone to making mistakes when they first started a job. They have since learned and improved their skills, but their manager has already formed a negative opinion of them. Now, the manager has a negative impression of them and ignores their contributions or has low expectations of them. So, they tend to give them poor performance evaluations causing the employee to have reduced motivation and lower productivity. The manager has formed an anchor bias against the employee.

How to reduce and prevent unconscious bias

Once your business has done the work of recognizing its own biases, the next step is to make you address unconscious bias in the workplace. One of the methods of overcoming bias is by holding multiple training sessions.

Research shows many unconscious biases can be unlearned if your employees, hiring team, and managers are determined to combat unconscious bias. Here are some examples of unconscious bias and how to avoid them in the workplace.

1. How to avoid ageism bias

Ageism bias often affects older workers who are discriminated against because their managers or coworkers might believe they are incapable of doing their jobs correctly. Another example of ageism bias is when older team members are passed up for a promotion, they're qualified for based on their age alone.

To combat ageism bias, businesses can make efforts to engage with and include older team members in the workplace, pair older workers with new hires to share knowledge and promote collaboration. It can also help to provide equal learning opportunities for all team members.

2. How to avoid authority bias

Authority bias has to do with the belief that someone is always right because they're in a position of power. For example, students may blindly follow or believe their faculty members even though they can also make mistakes.

In the workplace, encourage your employees to ask questions and use their critical thinking skills to detect when to follow instructions and when to use their best judgment. Give them the resources to do their own research to see what other credible experts have to say about the subject. Also, encourage them always to ask questions when things aren't clear.

3. How to avoid beauty bias

Beauty bias is apparent in the workplace when some workers get positive treatment because their managers or coworkers see them as more attractive. This leads to them getting better treatment or benefits than their coworkers, even when they don't deserve it.

This bias is also common in the hiring process, so to prevent comparing candidates based on looks, encourage job applicants to send in resumes without pictures. Also, conducting preliminary interviews over the phone helps avoid recruiters being swayed in any direction by the applicant's looks.

4. How to avoid confirmation bias

Confirmation bias happens when you only follow information that agrees with your views and ignore other important information that may say otherwise. This can be especially dangerous in a business environment because it's important to consider all relevant factors before making business decisions.

Avoid confirmation bias by getting information from different sources to get a more balanced view of facts. While interviewing new hires, be sure to ask standardized questions that give each applicant a fair chance to show their skills.

5. How to avoid conformity bias

Conformity bias is similar to peer pressure or groupthink, where employers or coworkers go with the same opinion as the rest of the group, even if they didn't originally think that way. Some people form this bias when trying to fit into the workplace environment or social group to get along with everyone and avoid conflicts.

To help prevent conformity bias, employers can encourage the use of anonymous feedback channels like online surveys. You can also ask each employee for their own opinion privately to avoid getting answers influenced by their colleagues.

6. How to avoid the halo effect

The halo effect is an unconscious bias that places importance on a person based on one or more of their impressive qualities. For example, favoring someone who is from a prestigious family over others in the workplace.

You can avoid this by always comparing all candidates on the same scale, especially regarding skills that are actually important to your business. It also helps to have frequent diversity training for your hiring team, so they learn to see every candidate through a uniform lens. Another thing you can do as an employer is to carry out multiple interviews with different people, so the candidates are assessed from multiple points of view.

7. How to avoid the horn effect

The horn effect is the opposite of the halo effect. With this unconscious bias, people form negative stereotypes about others based on one unpleasant or 'bad' thing about them. This can lead to your employees leaving out a coworker or treating them poorly and creating an unwelcome work environment. These can be as small as learning their coworker likes something they don't, such as their favorite sports team.

One of the best ways to avoid the horn effect is by conducting unconscious bias training to get to the root of why something about the employee bothers you. Learn to ignore these as long as it doesn't affect their ability to perform their tasks.

Employee getting annoyed at another one due to the Horn effect

8. How to avoid the contrast effect

The contrast effect is a form of unconscious bias that makes you compare people or things that don't necessarily have the same standards. For example, a really good interview with one candidate can make other interviews seem dull and uninspiring, even if they were also good interviews. This can make the hiring team favor the candidate from the really good interview, even if they aren't the best fit for the job.

To reduce how this unconscious bias affects the workplace, take active steps to examine how you make decisions to be sure you aren't being influenced by unfair comparisons. Encourage your managers and employees to do the same to help prevent the contrast effect from clouding your judgement.

9. How to avoid height bias

Forming opinions on people in the workplace based on their height may seem unlikely, but research suggests that taller people may be paid more since they're thought to be healthier and more competent. Shorter people may also be viewed as less mature or capable.

Unconscious bias training works to help people realize they even have these preconceptions about others, which can be the first step to reducing its effects. While hiring, it can help to conduct interviews over the phone or virtually to limit the influence of height bias.

10. How to avoid gender bias

Gender bias is one of the most common biases where one gender is seen as being more suited to a job than another. In many workplaces, male candidates have an unfair advantage over their female colleagues. Male workers are often considered first for promotions, salary raises and leadership positions.

Gender bias can be overcome by helping managers overcome their own bias through diversity training and promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. It also helps to use anonymous methods when screening candidates for a new role or considering employees for a promotion.

11. How to avoid name bias

A name bias causes people to favor Anglo-sounding names and associate their owners with positive traits while rejecting people with names from minority groups. This type of bias is very common in the hiring process. Research suggests that people with black and Asian last names get fewer callbacks than people with Anglo-sounding last names, even when they were overqualified for the roles.

You can avoid name bias in the hiring process by removing names from job applications. You can also have more diverse teams review candidates' profiles before they come in for an interview so they aren't influenced by their own opinions of people from certain groups.

12. How to avoid affinity bias

Affinity bias has people leaning toward others who are similar to them in some way or the other. Affinity biases affect diversity and inclusion because it encourages 'sameness,' leaving no room for diverse contributions. It's common during interviews to go with the candidate who seems like the best cultural fit, and while this can be good, it can also be bad when the more qualified candidate is passed over for the role.

Completely getting rid of affinity bias may be difficult, but you can start by building conscious awareness of the problem through things like an implicit association test. When hiring, make sure you have a diverse hiring panel with people from different identity groups, racial backgrounds, and genders. This can help create more representation and lessen the effects of one individual's affinity bias.

13. How to avoid anchor bias

Anchor biases lead people to hold onto the original or first piece of information they get about a person or group and use that to make subsequent decisions. This leads to narrow-minded decisions when you can't unsee a certain characteristic and don't take other factors into decision making.

Taking all aspects of an employee's character into account when making business decisions or forming your own opinion about them can help reduce the impact of anchor biases. It can also help to have a discussion with managers or other employees about your decision to get a different opinion about the employee.

14. How to avoid nonverbal bias

Nonverbal bias makes you wrongfully interpret unspoken attributes. For example, assuming a person's sexual orientation can make you project implicit biases or form an opinion about them based on things like their fashion choices or body language. Nonverbal bias can also make you display hostile or negative nonverbal behavior towards different groups.

Unconscious bias training can go a long way to helping lessen the existence of nonverbal biases in the workplace. This training can help employees and managers realize that people are different and won't always act the way you expect. This doesn't mean they won't be able to perform a job the correct way.

15. How to avoid overconfidence bias

Overconfidence bias may affect your employees and make them have more faith in their abilities than they should have. This can lead them to believe they have skills or abilities they don't have or that they're better suited to roles they don't have the skills for. This misplaced confidence can create problems in the business, especially when the employee refuses to take instructions or thinks they don't need to grow their skills.

To help employees overcome overconfidence bias, conduct regular performance evaluations, and give constructive feedback to help manage egos and identify areas of improvement.

16. How to avoid racial bias

Racial bias causes employers or managers to form opinions about other people's characters based on their race or ethnicity. As the Black Lives Matter movement showed, black people and other ethnic minorities are subjected to unfair treatment or microaggressions and denied numerous opportunities in and out of the workplace even when they work hard for it.

Employers can limit racial bias by improving diversity and raising awareness of racial issues in the workplace. You can also set quotas for diverse hires and make sure your hiring processes are inclusive.

Hiring managers being pre judgemental on a prospective employee

Overcoming unconscious bias with BrightHR

Overcoming unconscious bias in your workplace will require a long-term commitment. It may seem like a daunting task, but with the right guidance, you can create a more welcoming workplace that attracts highly skilled talents from diverse backgrounds.

That's where BrightHR comes in. Our suite of people management tools and software, like our e-learning platform BrightLearn, has tons of courses that help with training employees, managers and business owners to overcome their assumptions based on biases.

BrightBase, our library of HR documents, is also packed with policies, templates and guides for a more inclusive and bias-free workplace.

Not yet a BrightHR client? And are you eager to learn more about how we can help you create a bias-free workplace? Book a FREE demo today.

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