Unconscious bias in the workplace is a commonplace occurrence that impacts one person’s opinion of another, based on facts or experiences from their past. These biases can negatively affect an organisation in several ways: during the hiring process when HR or managers are considering different candidates; when a leader or manager treats certain employees differently than their peers; or when one worker makes assumptions about another and reacts accordingly.
“Bias is a natural inclination for or against an idea, object, group, or individual.”
What is bias?
Bias is a natural inclination for or against an idea, object, group, or individual. It is often learned and is highly dependent on variables such as a person’s socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity or educational background. At the individual level, bias can negatively impact an individual’s personal or professional relationships.
At the individual level, bias can negatively impact an individual’s personal or professional relationships. At a societal level, it can lead to unfair persecution of a group of people. Biases are often based on stereotypes, rather than actual knowledge of an individual or circumstance. Whether positive or negative, such cognitive shortcuts can result in prejudgments that lead to rash decisions or discriminatory practices.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious biases are social stereotypes attributed to certain groups of people that form outside of an individual’s conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organise social worlds by categorising them. Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and is often incompatible with a person’s conscious values.
Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and is often incompatible with a person’s conscious values.
Here are four examples of unconscious biases in the workplace with ideas on how to reduce them:
1. Gender Bias
Gender bias is the favouring of one gender over another, and is also referred to as sexism. This bias occurs when someone unconsciously associates certain stereotypes with different genders. These three practical examples of gender bias could easily be overlooked in the workplace:
“Gender bias is the favouring of one gender over another, and is also referred to as sexism.”
- An assertive woman may be perceived as “aggressive” while a man with the same attributes might be described as “confident”.
- “Bro-propriating” may take place in a meeting when a female member of the team makes a point that no one seems to feel too positive about. Then, a short while later, when a male member of the team makes the same point, everyone jumps on board with his great idea. Organisations that allow this sort of unconscious bias to occur in the workplace will discourage women from sharing their ideas and most likely disengage the women that work for them.
- A US survey 1 finds that organisations tend to promote tall people – particularly men – into senior roles. What is more, it has found that the average male CEO is three inches taller than the average male. If your organisation does not have any shorter employees in upper management – or your taller employees earn more than their shorter counterparts – you could be affected by an unconscious bias that strays into the realm of gender bias.
How to reduce gender bias in the workplace?
- Set gender-neutral recruitment standards: Define the ideal candidate profile ahead of time and evaluate all candidates against those standards.
- Create diversity goals: Set qualitative gender diversity goals to create a more gender-balanced team.
- Support and provide resources for women to take on leadership roles.
“At a fundamental level, racial bias, which is also referred to as racism, is believing that one’s racial group is superior to another…”
2. Racial bias
As humans, we are all born and raised in a cultural context. From early childhood we look around and start learning what is valuable about ourselves and those around us. In this way our cultural environments teach us the traits and characteristics of people that are deemed more desirable and less desirable, largely based on who has more power. At a fundamental level, racial bias, which is also referred to as racism, is believing that one’s racial group is superior to another and having the power to take action against the group or groups who are deemed inferior.
How to reduce racial bias in the workplace?
- To reduce racial bias in the workplace, organisations must confront racism at a systemic level; addressing every aspect from the structural and social mechanics of their own organisations to the role they play in the economy at large.
- Influencing how people feel about concepts such as gender or race is possibly the most difficult initiative when undertaking any Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) programme. Leaders should take it upon themselves to walk the talk in shaping their own organisational cultures to bring about creating truly ethical, fair, and inclusive environments. In reality, it will take leadership acting as real-life examples of the prosocial and moral values they want to promote in their own organisations to reduce unconscious racial bias.
3. Age bias
Today’s organisations are more multigenerational than ever before, with Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z (Centennials) all working together. Older employees can easily be forgotten as a protected group when it comes to creating an unbiased and inclusive workplace. Age bias also known as ageism can also translate to on-the-job bias. For example, younger workers are, perhaps, less likely to be trusted with important tasks and so are the subject of age-based stereotypes. Ageism is at its most subtle in the hiring process, because this is where this bias is at its most imperceptible. Candidates will never know if they were not the successful candidate because of their age.
How to reduce age bias in the workplace?
- Overcoming ageism in the hiring process has to be reinforced from the top, where HR managers feel supported if they offer strong candidates who are older.
- Training can also help management recognise the implications of wide-ranging ages and generational differences that often exist in the workplace and so harness these differences for better teamwork and innovative performance.
- To begin disrupting ageism in the workplace, training professionals should start by bringing age bias to light. It is only when management and employees are conscious of it that this bias can be minimised.
4. The Halo or Horn Effects
The “halo effect” is an unconscious cognitive bias that causes a person to believe that one good trait automatically gives rise to another person having multiple good traits. For example, if a person thinks a colleague is good looking, they may also think that person is intelligent and charismatic. The opposite effect is called the “the horns effect”, based on negative traits. Just because an employee did one poor job or dropped the ball a single time does not mean they are bad at their job or incapable of improving.
“The “halo effect” is an unconscious cognitive bias that causes a person to believe that one good trait automatically gives rise to another person having multiple good traits.”
How to reduce the halo or horns effect in the workplace?
- Managers need to be trained to be wary of generalising an employee’s performance based on one specific characteristic of their personality or appearance. They also need to understand that just because an employee did excellent work on a project six months ago does not necessarily mean that this person is still contributing as effectively – and vice versa.
- To minimise the likelihood that employees may be influenced by the halo effect, they can be educated to use a cognitive debiasing technique that involves consciously slowing down and taking control of their instinctive reasoning and response process. For example, they could be encouraged to develop two different perceptions of a new colleague the first time they meet them. Over time, as they better get to know the person, one perception will emerge as being more accurate.