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9 Examples of Unconscious Bias for Managers to Watch For

If you’re actively working on diversity, equality and inclusion in your company, unconscious bias can get in the way. You’ve likely heard of bias, but unconscious bias can sneak into your decisions without you realizing it. What you see as a gut instinct could be an unconscious or implicit bias affecting your decision.

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What is unconscious bias?

An unconscious bias happens when you make a decision subconsciously based on underlying stereotypes, beliefs and attitudes. Also called implicit bias, this behavior can cause you to favor certain people and discriminate against others without realizing it. Even though you don’t realize you’re showing bias, it’s still potentially harmful and something you should try to avoid.

Impact of unconscious bias in the workplace

The impact of unconscious bias in the workplace often occurs in the recruitment process. It can also affect decisions with employees, such as who gets to work on a special project or how you treat certain workers.

Unconscious bias often causes people to make snap decisions that aren’t based on evidence, which can be wrong decisions. It could hurt the diversity, equality and inclusion you want in the workplace. If your employees or job candidates recognize the bias, it can create a negative work environment or damage your company’s reputation.

Implicit bias examples

Recognizing this issue isn’t always easy. These implicit bias examples can help you understand the types of bias, what they look like in the workplace and what you can do to avoid them.

1. Affinity bias

Affinity bias describes the idea that people connect with and have a preference for other people who have something in common. That might be their background, appearance, education, opinions, interests or other commonalities.

You may see this with people forming cliques with people who are similar. During the hiring process, you might fall into this trap when you look for a good company culture fit. Many people consider a culture fit someone who’s similar to everyone else. While that may give you more to talk about and limit conflicts, it doesn’t help you diversify your team.

How to avoid it: Analyze the skills, experiences and backgrounds you already have on your team. Look at what’s missing and how you can add to the culture rather than just fit in with what you already have.

When you interview candidates, look at what they have in common with you and other current employees. Look beyond those similarities to see what else they have that can help your company. Taking the similarities out of the equation ensures you don’t choose someone because of those commonalities.

2. Gender bias

Some people have a subconscious gender bias, causing them to favor one gender over the other. In corporate settings, this bias tends to favor men. Male employees are often chosen for promotions or the best projects, and they often get paid more than women. While interviewing, you might subconsciously know you want to hire either a man or a woman. This can cause you to overlook a highly qualified candidate of the other gender.

How to avoid it: Blind resume screenings can help you choose the most deserving candidates for interviews. Using your standardized interviewing process, compare the skills and accomplishments of each candidate without considering gender.

3. The horn effect

The horn effect happens when you learn something negative about a person, which casts that person in a negative light permanently. Nothing that person does can convince you otherwise. It may not even be a harmful action. It could be something as simple as displaying mannerism you don’t like or that a person is overweight or doesn’t look the way you think they should.

When choosing applicants for interviews, you might deny an interview to someone who went to a college you perceive as bad. You might form a negative impression of an interviewee because they didn’t give you a firm handshake. This can cause you to discount highly qualified candidates who might be the best choice.

Among current employees, the horn effect can cause you to judge someone harshly for a minor issue. An employee forgets to do one small task and you brand them as lazy or incompetent. Someone shows up dressed a little too casually for work one day and you think of them as unprofessional no matter how much professionalism they show.

How to avoid it: Stop yourself when you notice a negative attitude toward someone. Honestly analyze why you have that feeling and whether it’s warranted. During interviews, wait to hear what other interviewers say about the person to see if you’re being overly harsh.

4. The halo effect

The halo effect is the opposite. When you see someone doing something impressive, you tend to put them on a pedestal. You might see an impressive degree or former employer on an applicant’s resume and decide subconsciously that they’re the best candidate for the job. You may ignore any negatives about the person and fail to see the good attributes of other interviewees.

When supervising current employees, the halo effect might cause you to play favorites. Someone who impresses you, even if it’s not for a merit-based reason, can do no wrong. You may overlook their mistakes or choose them for special projects even if someone else is more worthy. Other employees will pick up on this favoritism, and it will likely cause morale to drop.

How to avoid it: When reviewing resumes, beware of candidates with one amazing qualification. Ask yourself what else is impressive about the resume if you take that main accomplishment out of the picture. If the candidate has other impressive attributes or at least meets the requirements for the job, consider interviewing them.

Related: Understanding First Impression Bias (and How to Avoid it in Hiring)

5. Confirmation bias

In confirmation bias, you already have certain beliefs or opinions about a person, often based on random things, such as where they went to college or their hometown. These opinions are usually based on your own beliefs or preferences. Once you form that early opinion, you look for facts to confirm it and you often ignore evidence that contradicts that view.

In an interview, you might ask leading questions to receive that confirmation. Instead of listening to the answers without bias, you only hear what you want to hear to prove that your initial assumptions are correct. Answers that disprove your conclusion might be ignored.

How to avoid it: Avoid confirmation bias during the interview process by standardizing it. Ask the same questions of every candidate and prepare questions early to avoid developing ones that confirm biases. It’s natural to have follow-up conversations based on candidate answers, but keeping the interview process as standardized as possible can reduce the risk of confirmation bias.

6. Ageism

Ageism causes people to use age to make assumptions or have negative feelings about someone. It’s often seen when companies think older employees can’t handle certain tasks or they’re past their prime. For example, you might offer interviews and jobs to younger candidates who have more working years left. You might assume younger candidates are better with technology or are easier to mold.

How to avoid it: Educate yourself, your recruiters and hiring managers about ageism. Reframe the age issue with more experience being a positive for your company. Don’t make assumptions about what current employees can do based on age.

7. Attribution bias

An attribution bias happens when you make assumptions about the reason behind a person’s behavior, mistakes or successes. You might use previous interactions with the person or your behaviors as reasons to judge someone else’s behavior.

For example, if a salesperson lands the biggest account the company has ever had, you might assume the person got lucky or had a personal connection that helped them get the deal. If an employee is late for work, you might assume they’re lazy or just don’t care. Running with such assumptions could lead to disciplinary actions or negative performance reviews. But the employee could be struggling to find childcare or dealing with an unreliable car that they can’t afford to fix.

While interviewing candidates, you might make assumptions about a red flag on a resume, such as an employment gap, without knowing the full story. Or you might make assumptions about an unusual behavior at the job interview, such as someone showing up late or acting overly nervous or insecure.

How to avoid it: If you find yourself making assumptions about a behavior, whether it’s with a current employee or job candidate, stop and reassess the situation. In an interview, ask clarifying questions about things you see as red flags. For current employees, schedule a one-on-one meeting if you notice potential employee misconduct. Instead of making assumptions, ask questions about the situation before doling out disciplinary action.

8. Conformity bias

A conformity bias is a type of peer pressure. The idea is that individuals start acting like the people they’re with, even if it goes against their beliefs, without thinking for themselves. You see it in some business meetings when everyone agrees with the ideas and opinions being shared. This can happen if the most dominant voices or senior staff members always share their opinions loudly and don’t handle it well when someone brings up a different viewpoint.

During a panel-style interview, one interviewer’s opinions might influence the others. Instead of sharing their opinions about the candidates, they agree with what the influencer says.

Conformity bias can drown out minority opinions. You might miss out on innovative solutions because some of your employees are afraid to share their ideas. Employees can start to feel undervalued if they always have to go along with the majority or the loudest, most influential people. It can also leave employees feeling bad about the situation if they go along with something that doesn’t match their values.

How to avoid it: Build a safe, trusting environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their opinions, even if they disagree with others. Teach your employees how to discuss varying opinions respectfully and negotiate to come to a consensus. Praise people who speak up against the majority to show you value those differing viewpoints.

When hiring new employees, start with a standardized interview process using a scoring sheet where each interviewer rates the candidates and makes notes about them. Instead of discussing opinions immediately, conduct all of the interviews and give all interviewers time to put their thoughts down on paper. This prevents some interviewers from swaying others to choose their favorite candidate or change their opinion on a candidate.

9. Contrast effect

When interviewing candidates or evaluating current employees, it’s natural to compare them to one another. Sometimes that can result in an unfairly harsh review. This usually happens when you see two back-to-back. Say you’re reviewing applications and you find a really impressive resume. The next person may also have strong qualifications, but you might judge them more harshly because you just reviewed an exceptional resume. The same can happen during interviews. You may be harsher with your evaluation of the person who follows someone who interviews very well.

When evaluating current staff members, the contrast effect can result in an employee getting an unfairly negative review. For example, if you review an average salesperson who performs consistently right after the top salesperson who always exceeds quotas and all other employees, you may give the average salesperson below-average marks due to the contrast effect.

How to avoid it: Structured interviews and review processes help you evaluate each person individually. If you tend to compare people, space out interviews and performance reviews. Conduct one per day or at least leave a few hours between them to reset your brain.

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