Unconscious bias is an unavoidable part of human existence and behavior. As uncomfortable as it can be to admit – everyone harbors unconscious biases and inevitably brings them into the workplace.
However, unconscious bias in the workplace can hinder diversity, recruiting, and retention efforts and unintentionally shape an organization’s culture. It affects who gets hired, promoted, and advances in the workplace.
HR leaders and senior management must ask the question, “To what extent are the organizational culture and business outcomes affected by unconscious bias?” In this article, we will discuss the consequences of unconscious bias, the different types of unconscious bias, and how to overcome it.
What is Unconscious Bias in the Workplace?
Most employees have probably heard the term “unconscious bias” from their HR department during their orientation, but they may not have had much opportunity to learn more about it.
So, what is unconscious bias in the workplace?
Unconscious bias, often called implicit bias, in the simplest sense, means having some prejudice towards another person. It is a learned belief, assumption, or attitude that exists outside of a person’s conscious awareness.
Over time, scientists have found that our minds are naturally wired to form assumptions and associations as a means of processing information more efficiently. Although we like to believe that we are open-minded and objective, the reality is that every individual has these biases that serve as mental shortcuts for faster information processing.
In other words, we all judge people or situations without being fully aware.
These hidden biases, shaped by our upbringing, cultural conditioning, and personal experiences, can unknowingly influence our judgments, decisions, and interactions, often resulting in unintended discrimination.
Discrimination often happens based on other people’s race, ethnicity, age, gender, appearance, sexuality (and more), and such behaviors can be particularly detrimental in the workplace, both to the groups of people they affect and the organization.
The Prevalence of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” This old adage is as relevant today as it ever was. We live in a world where people constantly judge each other, often based on stereotypes and biases.
As a result, unconscious bias can seep into the workplace in many ways – from treating people differently based on their clothes to rating overweight employees lower in performance evaluations.
For example, a survey conducted among hiring managers revealed that being overweight can significantly affect a woman’s chances of career advancement. When presented with images of women varying in body types, only 15.6 percent of the hiring managers expressed willingness to hire the woman with the largest body. Additionally, 21 percent of respondents labeled her “lazy” and “unprofessional.”
On the other hand, tall men have a significant career advantage. In fact, it was calculated that an inch of height is worth about $789 per year in salary – and that company presidents, CEOs, and military leaders were all taller on average.
Moreover, these biases persist not only in visible attributes, such as body size or height but also in less obvious factors, like the name on a resume. One study found that resumes with white-sounding names were more likely to be called back for interviews than resumes with African American and Asian-sounding names, even when the resumes were identical.
Is this type of bias rarely encountered in the workplace?
Here are some statistics on the prevalence of unconscious bias in the workplace:
- 60% of employees report experiencing bias in the workplace
- 64% of employees felt they had witnessed bias at work in the last year
- 73% of workers feel comfortable talking to others about bias in the workplace
- 30% of employees report ignoring bias that they witness or experience
- Employees who perceive bias are nearly three times as likely to be disengaged at work
- Active disengagement costs US companies $450 billion to $550 billion per year
These statistics show that unconscious bias is a pervasive problem in the workplace.
Types of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace
Needless to say, unconscious bias is a complex issue. As it’s hidden from our conscious awareness, it can be challenging to identify or understand it.
However, we know there are over 150 identified types of unconscious biases in the workplace, making eliminating them daunting. Below is a list of some which are more pervasive in the workplace.
Favoring individuals who are similar to ourselves or have similar backgrounds, leading to preferential treatment.
Promoting or hiring someone simply because they share the same alma mater or social interests rather than based on merit alone.
Discriminating against individuals based on their age, leading to assumptions about their abilities or relevance.
Assuming that an older employee is resistant to change and unable to grasp new technologies without considering their expertise.
Appearance/ Pretty privilege
Forming an overall positive or negative impression of a person based on their appearance.
Managers may be less inclined to employ someone with tattoos.
Granting more credibility or trust to individuals in positions of authority or power, leading to unequal treatment.
Automatically accepting the ideas or decisions of a senior executive without questioning them, even if there are valid concerns or alternative solutions.
The tendency to seek information that confirms preexisting beliefs or assumptions.
A hiring manager with a strong preference for a particular candidate may unknowingly ask them easier questions highlighting their strengths instead of exploring areas where they may have weaknesses.
The tendency to adopt the beliefs and behaviors of a group without critical evaluation, suppressing diverse ideas.
A teammate doesn’t ask for help on an assignment because they haven’t seen anyone else do that.
Forming an overall positive impression of a person based on one positive trait.
Assuming that a physically attractive individual must also be intelligent and capable without considering other factors.
Forming an overall negative impression of a person based on one negative trait.
Dismissing a colleague's suggestions or ideas because they made a mistake in the past without considering their other contributions.
Discriminating against individuals based on their names.
During recruitment, discriminating against certain candidates if they don’t have an Anglo-sounding name.
Identifying Unconscious Bias
Our unconscious brain is constantly looking for patterns in the world around us. When we see two things happening repeatedly, our brain starts to expect them to occur together in the future.
For example, if we see many male senior managers and many female nurses, our brain may expect all senior managers to be male and all nurses to be female.
These mental shortcuts and labels stem from our evolutionary need to distinguish between friend and foe, a crucial skill that aided human survival.
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman proposes the idea that our minds operate between two modes of thought: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is intuitive, fast, and automatic. System 2 is slower, more logical, and more deliberate.
Unconscious bias arises when we multitask, work under pressure, or need to quickly form judgments – in other words, when we heavily rely on System 1. While our conscious minds can process a mere 40 pieces of information per second, our unconscious minds have an astonishing ability to process a staggering 11 million pieces of information.
However, it is important to be aware that shortcuts can often lead to more problems than they solve. If left unchecked, our biases are simply a slippery slope to prejudice and discrimination.
Researchers at Harvard have created Project Implicit, a virtual laboratory where individuals can take various tests to learn how to identify and get educated about their biases.
In the workplace, the first step to eliminating bias is to be able to identify it, and there are specific steps leaders can take:
- Conduct employee surveys to identify specific issues of hidden bias and unfairness.
- Talk with current employees, particularly those from underrepresented groups, to learn about the unconscious biases they have observed and how they have affected their careers.
- Survey former employees to learn about the challenges they faced and what would make them more likely to return.
- Conduct an organizational diversity audit to identify and address unconscious biases.
The structures and processes used to identify biases will vary from workplace to workplace, but the benefits of doing so are clear. Once we acknowledge that we all have unconscious biases, we can take steps to mitigate their impact on our decision-making.
Examples of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace
Below are some examples of how unconscious bias can manifest in your workplace:
- Customer service: A customer service representative may be less likely to be helpful to someone who speaks with an accent.
- Hiring decisions: Hiring managers may be more likely to hire someone who looks like them or comes from a similar background.
- Promotions: Managers may be more likely to promote someone they feel fits their image as a leader.
- Daily assessments: Managers may be more likely to give impactful assignments to an employee they like.
- Employee recognition: A team leader may be more likely to praise a male colleague than a female colleague.
- Performance reviews: People may be inclined to give positive reviews to people they like or are similar to them.
- Salary negotiations: People may be more likely to offer lower salaries to people who they assume are less qualified or who they don’t feel comfortable with.
- Team dynamics: A team may be more likely to listen to and take seriously the ideas of people who are similar to them.
- Business outcomes: A customer may be more likely to trust and do business with someone who is similar to them.
After reading these examples, you might think your workplace is immune to bias and discrimination. After all, you’ve never seen anyone being mistreated because of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.
But discrimination can be subtle, and it can be hard to spot. Even if you don’t see it happening, it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
One of the most insidious ways that bias creeps into the workplace is through daily assessments of employee potential.
For example, an employee who is seen as being more “likable” or “professional” may be more likely to get good assignments and praise from senior management. And when they make mistakes, they may be more likely to be forgiven. On the other hand, another employee may get the less desirable assignments and be more harshly scrutinized for their mistakes.
These seemingly minor differences can accumulate over time and reduce equal opportunities, ultimately determining who gets promoted to leadership positions.
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The Effects of Unconscious Bias
Unconscious bias is universal and impacts the workplace at all levels.
A striking example of the impact of unconscious bias is the persistent wage gap. On average, women are paid 82 cents for every dollar men earn, indicating a substantial disparity. This gap becomes even more pronounced when considering women of color, as they face a wider wage discrepancy.
Detriment to Well-being
According to a Deloitte survey, a staggering 84% of respondents said that bias adversely impacts their happiness, confidence, and overall well-being to varying degrees.
This issue is further highlighted by a 2017 study conducted by Harvard Business Review, which revealed that individuals, regardless of gender, experience differential treatment in the workplace, even when exhibiting similar behaviors such as speaking up in meetings, collaborating with colleagues, and engaging with leaders.
Amidst a disengaged workforce, biases can evoke feelings of isolation, frustration, and resentment among employees. In fact, research indicates that 33% of employees who perceive bias experience a recurring sense of alienation in their workplace.
Moreover, a staggering 70% believe that the bias they have personally encountered or witnessed has had a detrimental effect on their level of engagement at work. These biases and the accompanying microaggressions often contribute to a high turnover rate, as employees increasingly seek opportunities in organizations that prioritize inclusivity and provide a superior employee experience.
Bias in the workplace can limit the company’s ability to attract and retain top talent. A notable 31% of employees who perceive bias plan to leave their current employer within the year, and 80% of employees who perceive bias wouldn’t recommend their employer to people in their networks.
A considerable 34% of employees who perceive bias have withheld their ideas or solutions within the past six months. By making assumptions about someone’s working style, age, or interests, we risk stifling innovation by failing to recognize and appreciate the distinct contributions that each individual can bring.
As much as 68% of employees reported that bias had a negative impact on their productivity. The cost of unconscious bias in the workplace is projected at $64 billion annually. This includes the costs of replacing employees who leave due to discrimination, legal expenses, and lost productivity.
Clearly, unconscious biases have far-reaching effects, hindering decision-making, influencing team dynamics and productivity, and constraining company diversity.
What can be done about it?
In recent years, there has been a growing recognition and heightened awareness of the need to address unconscious bias in the workplace, and HR leaders are playing a key role in this effort.
Education and training programs aimed at addressing unconscious bias have seen a rise due to public outrage over racist incidents at work and growing evidence highlighting the harmful effects of employees feeling excluded.
Importance of Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace
Due to its inherent nature, bias has historically been challenging to define, teach, and reform. Traditionally, businesses have addressed unconscious bias with brief training sessions during onboarding. However, these sessions are often ineffective, as they are one-off events that do not provide employees with the opportunity to learn and grow over time.
In order to be effective, HR leaders need to take a more involved, ongoing approach with a growth mindset to tackle unconscious bias.
It requires a delicate balance of asking difficult questions, being thoughtful, and keeping an open mind regarding our own biases and those that occur around us daily. Continuous training is necessary to apply anti-bias principles and take action in our living, working, and learning environments.
The good news is that the majority of today’s workforce recognizes the value of initiatives aimed at fostering an inclusive working environment.
According to The Wall Street Journal, 20 percent of large US companies currently provide unconscious bias training to their employees. This number is expected to rise to 50 percent within the next five years.
Increasing diversity in the workplace brings a range of additional benefits, including:
- Increased company profitability: Teams with strong problem-solving and decision-making skills offer a competitive advantage. For instance, a McKinsey study found that gender-diverse companies were 21% more likely to achieve above-average profitability. Moreover, the symbols, images, and words employers choose throughout their organization can significantly impact how customers perceive a business.
- Promoting innovation: Diverse teams bring various fresh ideas to the table and help develop creative solutions that drive sales. A study by the Boston Consulting Group revealed that companies with diverse management teams generated 19% higher innovation revenue.
- Broader and more diverse talent pool through inclusive hiring practices: Companies can access a wider talent pool by implementing inclusive recruitment strategies. Job seekers are also more likely to apply to organizations that prioritize diversity.
- Boosting company productivity: University research found that tech firms with diverse management teams exhibited 1.32 times higher levels of productivity. Increased productivity leads to more efficient project management and implementation.
- Higher employee engagement: Deloitte research demonstrates a direct correlation between company diversity and employee engagement. Higher engagement levels contribute to increased job satisfaction, ultimately reducing turnover rates.
- Facilitating fair and efficient business decisions: Teams that embrace diversity and inclusion tend to make superior business choices approximately 87% of the time. Such decisions can have a substantial positive impact on a company’s overall performance and financial success.
It is evident that organizations must take action to address unconscious bias and foster diversity and inclusion, as doing so not only aligns with ethical values but also yields tangible benefits for both employees and the company’s overall success.
How to Overcome Unconscious Bias in the Workplace?
The bad news is that unconscious bias is hard-wired, and everyone has it. But the good news is that it is something that can be improved.
So, how to overcome unconscious bias in the workplace?
Implementing systemic changes at an individual level can be challenging. However, as a leader, manager, or even as a colleague, numerous actions can be taken to overcome bias effectively:
- Educate employees about unconscious bias. Employees need to be aware of their own biases to overcome them.
- Using storytelling to raise awareness. Stories can be a powerful way to raise awareness of unconscious bias. By sharing stories of people who have been affected by bias, we can help others to understand the impact that it can have.
- Conduct interviews using skills-based questions focusing on the abilities and qualifications necessary for the role rather than relying on subjective factors. This approach helps ensure a fair and unbiased evaluation of candidates based on their expertise and potential to excel in the position.
- Set clear and objective criteria for evaluating candidates, avoiding vague notions of “culture fit” that can lead to unconscious biases. Instead, define specific attributes and competencies that align with the organization’s values and goals.
- Empowering employees to challenge bias. Employees should be empowered to challenge bias when they see it. This means creating a workplace where everyone feels comfortable speaking up, even if they are not in a position of authority.
- Implement unconscious bias training for managers and decision-makers. Managers and decision-makers need to be aware of their own biases to make fair and equitable decisions.
- Track and monitor data on diversity and inclusion. Organizations can use artificial intelligence to track data on diversity and inclusion in order to identify and address areas where bias may occur.
- Celebrating diversity. A diverse workplace is a more vibrant and productive workplace. By celebrating corporate diversity, we can help to create a more inclusive environment where everyone feels valued.
Equality is a fundamental human right, and it is something that we should all strive for. Therefore, recognizing and acknowledging our inherent biases is the first step toward fostering a truly inclusive workplace.
Although progress may not happen overnight, it is imperative for organizations to actively address unconscious bias in the workplace head-on. By implementing proactive measures, they can pave the way for positive changes and, ultimately, a transformed workforce. The benefits of such initiatives are far-reaching, extending beyond mere statistics or compliance.
- The fairness factor in performance management (McKinsey)
- Diversity’s Positive Impact on Innovation and Outcomes
- The Real Effects of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace (UNC)
- Research Reveals The Extent Of Bias Among Managers (Forbes)
- The Bias Barrier (Deloitte)
- Breaking barriers: Unconscious gender bias in the workplace (ILO)
- Unconscious bias (The Royal Society)
- Bringing Hidden Biases Into the Light (WSJ)
- Delivering through diversity (McKinsey)
- How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation (BCG)
- Waiter, is that inclusion in my soup? (Deloitte)
- New Research: Diversity + Inclusion = Better Decision Making At Work (Forbes)