What is bias in the workplace?
Bias in the workplace is the purposeful or accidental assumptions made when hiring candidates, delegating tasks or comparing employees in other ways. In most cases, bias is either conscious or unconscious, both of which require awareness and training to combat:
Conscious and unconscious bias
Conscious bias is an active, understood and calculated choice to act in a certain way. With conscious bias, you’re aware of the decisions you’re making and know what’s motivating them. Unconscious bias, also called implicit bias, is a behavior, action or inaction a person performs unconsciously. Unlike conscious bias, people who exhibit unconscious bias have no idea they’re acting in a way that favors some people and excludes others. Since it’s often unrecognizable to the person demonstrating it, unconscious bias can be very challenging to combat without effective training.
Types of bias and how to address them
In the workplace, you might see bias during the hiring process, when assigning employees to projects or when it’s time for promotions. Learn about 12 of the most common types of workplace bias and how to address each:
1. Conformity bias
Here, you’re pressured to agree with others in a group. You might second guess your original thoughts, ideas or decisions based on feedback from others. In a hiring situation, this can cause the group to overlook someone for the job who may be an excellent fit based on feedback and ideas from others.
Take notes during the meeting in two columns—your feelings and the feelings of others in the room. This can help you stay true to your opinions rather than feeling swayed by other’s ideas.
2. Beauty bias
Many people are biased toward traditionally attractive people. Those who meet societal standards of beauty are more likely to get a job, assignment or promotion than those deemed less attractive. It’s important to be aware of this type of bias so it can be avoided during recruiting or promotion.
Consider holding blind interviews if you’re finding beauty bias to be a challenge in your organization. You can perform more phone interviews than in-person interviews, for example.
3. Affinity bias
This type of bias leads you to form a deeper connection with someone you share a connection with or share a perceived connection with. For example, if you’re a manager and one of your employees plays the same sport as you on the weekends, you may be more likely to offer them assignments before others on staff because you have a fondness for them.
As soon as you become aware of the connection, make note of it with a reminder to yourself that this shared interest is not applicable to their suitability for the position. Addressing the affinity bias directly can help avoid it.
4. Halo effect
Here, one outstanding quality or accomplishment takes precedence over any negative attributes the person may exhibit. For example, if a candidate went to an exceptional college, that fact may distract you from their lack of clarity when answering interview questions.
Following the interview, make a list of all the applicable skills, training and experiences the applicant has in one column with any potential drawbacks in a second column. Use these lists to help you gauge the applicant’s relevant characteristics without relying on their singular stellar attribute.
5. Horns effect
The horns effect is the inverse of the halo effect. Rather than acknowledging and focusing on a single positive attribute, you acknowledge and focus on a single negative characteristic. This one detrimental fact or action colors all other interactions and positive accomplishments the person makes.
You can use the same column and list strategy you used to combat the halo effect to minimize bias from the horns effect. Focus on the facts rather than on the assumptions you draw from a single characteristic or interview response.
6. Similarity bias
Most people unconsciously feel more comfortable around those who share a similarity with them. You’re more likely to hire or select someone for a job, assignment or promotion if they look or act like you.
Ensure you and your team have access to diversity training and have the opportunity to interact with people who differ from them in important ways. This will increase awareness of similarity bias and help combat it in hiring and promotion situations.
7. Contrast effect
This type of bias is most detrimental in the hiring process. People sometimes compare resumes or interviews with the others they experienced rather than comparing the person’s qualifications and skills to the job description and necessary attributes.
Ensure the hiring staff has adequate training on hiring best practices and understands how they are to review candidates, especially when it comes to comparing candidate’s resumes to the listed job description rather than to other applicants.
8. Attribution bias
Often, we attribute other people’s accomplishments and failures to different factors. If someone succeeds, we assume it’s because they got lucky. If they fail, we assume it’s because they’re unqualified for the job. This bias can have a major impact on performance reviews and other productivity metrics.
Attribution bias is most often a contributing factor for promotions or raises. Ensure your management staff has adequate training on objectively evaluating their employees’ productivity when considering them for new opportunities.
9. Confirmation bias
With this type of bias, you assume you’re right regardless of the facts. For example, if you’re a recruiter, and you’ve selected a candidate for interviews, you’re likely to think your candidate is better than others found by other recruiters because you want to confirm what you saw in the candidate sourcing process.
Confirmation bias can be a challenge to overcome. Offer training for your hiring team specifically on confirmation bias to help them avoid it.
10. Affect heuristics
This bias causes people to make conclusions based on superficial or unimportant details (like first names or the color of someone’s tie) rather than facts and evidence. For example, if you don’t like blue and the candidate is wearing a blue shirt, you’re less likely to give them a callback. Similarly, if your best friend’s name is Carla and you interview a candidate with that name, you may unknowingly be skewed toward hiring them.
Ensure you’re not relying on gut feelings when making hiring decisions. Instead, consider the professional reasons why you feel the candidate in question is or is not the best choice. If you can’t find the appropriate evidence, then you might be relying on affect heuristics.
11. Illusory correlation
Here, you make connections between unrelated concepts and make assumptions based on those relationships. For example, say in an interview that a candidate arrives wearing a similar outfit to the outfit you wore to your interview. You might assume that because they’re a thoughtful dresser, they’re perfect for the position, regardless of evidence.
You can use the same approach for illusory correlation as you do for affect heuristics. Find compelling and concrete evidence that supports your conclusion rather than relying on a feeling or assumption.
12. Intuition bias
This is the practice of relying on your emotional response rather than facts when making a decision. In some cases, intuition is warranted, but that’s rarely true in the workplace. Intuition that a candidate who has an excellent resume and had a great interview but gave the hiring manager an uneasy feeling is often just a sign of unconscious bias.
Provide training that educates hiring and managerial professionals on the importance of relying on facts and concrete information over emotional decision making to help them avoid intuition bias.
The danger of bias in the workplace and when hiring
Bias in the workplace has a number of negative repercussions. Consider the dangers of allowing rampant bias in your office:
- Turnover: One of the biggest impacts of biased hiring practices and management is employee turnover. You might end up hiring someone unfit for the position. Or you may pass over excellent candidates for assignments or promotions due to bias.
- Legal issues: If a candidate or employee accuses you of biased practices, you could face lawsuits, fines or court hearings under the federal Equal Employment Opportunity law regarding workplace discrimination.
- Homogeny: Biased hiring practices often lead to homogenous workplaces, since many biases lead people to group with people who look or act like themselves. Diversity has been shown to improve business outcomes above industry medians in many areas of the marketplace.
Bias is an unavoidable part of personal and professional life. However, with some training and awareness, you can limit or eliminate the impact of bias on your hiring and management practices.