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5 Types of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace & How To Eliminate Them

Your employees make hundreds of decisions every day. Many of those decisions are informed by unconscious bias—subconscious beliefs that affect your attitudes and actions. When employees’ hidden prejudices are unfair and unfounded, they can hurt your company morale and your bottom line. By training your team to recognize and eliminate unconscious bias in the workplace, you can build a more civil, inclusive and profitable environment.

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What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias, or implicit bias, is an assumption or belief you have in favor of or against a person or a group of people. These prejudices are unintentional; they happen outside of your awareness.

Everyone has unconscious biases; they start forming when you’re young. Your brain takes in information from your childhood, background, family situation, culture and experiences. Then, it uses that input to make quick judgments about types or groups of people. Although you aren’t aware of these biases, they can have an impact on your thoughts, attitudes and actions.

This type of bias is tricky by nature—it’s hard to recognize something that happens unconsciously. To make things even more complicated, your unconscious biases can be directly opposed to your conscious beliefs and values.

Effects of unconscious bias in the workplace

When your employees and managers have unconscious biases, it can lead to:

  • Unfair assumptions
  • Preferential treatment
  • Discrimination
  • Harassment and bullying
  • Exclusionary behavior

These effects can extend to every part of the company, from recruitment to management. Without action, they can damage morale and lead to low employee retention rates.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the effects of these hidden biases—namely, education, communication and awareness. By taking steps to eliminate unconscious bias at work, you can create a more ethical and respectful workplace. Your employees will feel safer and more supported, which makes them more motivated to come to work; this can result in an increase in employee retention and workplace performance.

You can implement the principles of implicit bias training in the workplace, throughout the hiring process and during onboarding. Make it part of your company’s DNA, and you can build a more equal and inclusive environment.

Types and examples of unconscious bias

Awareness is the key to counteracting unconscious bias. When your employees and managers know what common biases look like, it’s easier to avoid unintentionally offending, hurting or upsetting others.

Some of the most common types of unconscious bias that occur in the workplace are:

1. Gender bias

Gender bias happens when a person has a stereotypical belief about someone based solely on their gender. Traditionally, workplace gender bias works against female employees. If a manager is biased in favor of men, they might:

  • Defer to male employees’ opinions
  • Give men preference when assigning tasks
  • Assign caretaking tasks, such as setting out snacks for meetings, to women

On a larger scale, biased managers may choose not to promote a new mother to a more demanding role because they fear the woman won’t have the necessary time or energy to handle both responsibilities.

Of course, this type of bias can also affect male employees. Managers might overlook men for “soft” tasks and projects or refuse to give them parental leave to care for a new child.

2. Beauty bias

Beauty bias happens when employees form conclusions or opinions about others based on their appearance. As a result, they may favor certain employees over others due to their looks rather than their skills, experience or work performance. If a manager has a choice between two candidates, beauty bias might prompt them to choose the more attractive person—even if they’re less qualified.

3. Conformity bias

Conformity bias is an individual’s desire to agree with anything a group of people say, despite their own opinions or judgments. This often keeps other employees from voicing their own thoughts or having unique opinions that differ from the group.

For instance, during a meeting to brainstorm new marketing campaigns, leadership members may provide their own ideas and encourage others to agree with them. If an employee disagrees or tries to change their original suggestions, the leadership team disapproves and turns down the ideas in front of all the meeting attendees. This can cause other employees to feel hesitant about expressing their own thoughts.

4. Affinity bias

This bias occurs when someone favors another person because they share similarities with them and sometimes see themselves in that person. For instance, a male manager may choose another male for a position simply because he went to the same university and is pursuing a role that the manager held at that age.

5. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias occurs in two stages. First, you form an initial opinion about a person. Then, your brain starts searching for evidence to support this judgment or belief. The problem is that while you’re looking for confirmation, it’s all too easy to overlook other evidence that contradicts your original belief.

Marketing departments are particularly prone to confirmation bias. Imagine that one of your employees has a gut feeling that customers want a specific new product. Instead of looking at the market research data objectively—which shows that customers actually want a new feature added to an existing product—the employee gives in to confirmation bias and cherry-picks the data points that support their idea.

Strategies for handling unconscious bias in the workplace

Once you’re aware of common unconscious biases examples at work, you can create programs and HR policies that reduce the effects. Some strategies to stop bias are:

Provide unconscious bias and inclusivity training

Before you do anything else, invest in unconscious bias training for the entire company. Bring in a professional to work with your team—they can help you understand and identify unconscious bias in the workplace. Then, they’ll offer practical ways to combat bias and create a positive, respectful work environment.

Resist the temptation to save money and conduct the training yourself; an objective third party can help your managers and employees feel less defensive and more receptive. Once your team has developed more self awareness, you can integrate implicit bias training into your onboarding process to ensure that new hires are up to speed.

Build a diverse and inclusive workplace

A diverse and inclusive workplace exposes employees to a wide range of ideas, people and perspectives; this alone can help reduce unconscious bias. To achieve diversity, you may need to revamp your company’s hiring and interview process.

  • Set goals for your hiring managers: Ask them to make a concerted effort to increase diversity, both in the candidate pool and among the finalists.
  • Remove candidates’ personal information from applications and resumes: This strategy, which is also known as “blind recruitment,” removes personal details that may trigger unconscious bias. It can help you make an objective decision based on a candidate’s qualifications. This is usually done in the beginning stages of recruitment; you can do it manually or invest in software that automatically hides personal information when you’re viewing applications and resumes.
  • Stick to a standardized interview process: Use the same method and questions for each job interview to help you treat each person equally. Since the interviewer must stick to the script, they’ll be less likely to allow unconscious bias to dictate their questions.

Create and enforce inclusive policies and practices

Once you build a diverse workforce, keep it that way with policies that enforce a civil, respectful and inclusive environment. Focus your efforts on encouraging, accepting and embracing employees’ differences to make them feel welcomed and respected in your company.

Some helpful policies and practices are:

  • Standardizing the promotion and pay-raise schedule
  • Performing pay equity audits
  • Allowing all voices to be heard in meetings
  • Creating an anonymous feedback system
  • Setting a no-tolerance policy for discrimination

Some types of unconscious bias are hard to reduce with policies alone—it takes constant vigilance and education. Start by observing the interactions between managers and employees. Do your managers tend to praise the same people over and over again? Do they give opportunities and responsibilities to the same group of high performers? Are they gathering socially with some people and not others?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, you may be dealing with managers’ unconscious bias. This is normal—everyone likes some people better than others—but it can be problematic in the workplace. To counteract it, work with your managers to ensure that they’re distributing praise, constructive criticism, opportunities and mentorship equally among employees.

Related: Setting the Values and Vision of Your Company

FAQs about unconscious bias at the workplace

Which workplace unconscious bias should you eliminate first?

Tackling unconscious bias can feel overwhelming. There’s no need to take care of everything at once; instead, choose the biases that are most prevalent in your workplace.

To start, look at your demographics—if your workforce is 90% male and 10% female, you might start with gender bias. Employee feedback can also provide valuable clues. Stay alert for whispers of racial discrimination or complaints of preferential treatment among managers. If employees are experiencing problems, you probably won’t need to look far to find them.

How can I hold managers accountable for unconscious bias?

Since managers have the power to impact employees’ careers, it’s important to hold them accountable when it comes to eliminating bias. Aside from observing their behavior and interactions, you can conduct regular audits of:

  • Performance reviews
  • Raises and promotions
  • Disciplinary actions

As you examine each manager’s record, keep an eye out for patterns that suggest they may be showing favoritism to one group of employees. It might not be happening, but it’s certainly worth investigating; great managers will appreciate the opportunity to improve.

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