You may have heard the adage, “diversity is good for business.” Aside from the economic benefits, when businesses don’t incorporate diversity in their workplaces, their limited number of perspectives inhibits innovation and growth. While the goal of building a more diverse workplace is wonderful in theory, the process of becoming more diverse is complex. Due to unconscious bias in the workplace, roadblocks to creating diversity can affect the entire spectrum of the employee experience - from hiring to performance reviews, advancement opportunities, and beyond.
So, what is unconscious bias, and how can we eliminate it? Read below for the answers to all of your unconscious bias questions and how best to train your people on these biases.
Here's what you'll learn:
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias is how we categorize and make assumptions about people based on observable traits such as gender, skin color, and age. These assumptions impact our behavior, attitudes, judgments, and decisions. Because we may not even know we have these biases, we’re not aware of their influence.
The problem with unconscious bias in the workplace is that these assumptions often manifest as prejudice or unsupported judgments in favor or against a thing, person, or group. The unfair treatment or assumptions of others can unwittingly prevent employees from being invited to work on projects, feeling like they belong at work events, or being considered for leadership positions.
These biases will often manifest as problematic “everyday biases,” the subtle, minor comments or behaviors that, to the speaker, don’t seem offensive, but to the recipient, can add up to a hostile work environment.
What are the characteristics of unconscious biases?
You may be asking yourself, if we don’t even know we have these biases, how can we identify them? Unconscious biases have these four traits:
Unconscious biases are pervasive.
Everyone in the world has implicit biases, as they are shaped throughout our development and by the environment in which we grow up. The impact of unconscious biases can be seen everywhere, whether it be in how we speak to one another, what is taught in schools, what is sold in stores, and how it is used to make decisions. Even judges, who we hold up as paragons of impartiality, hold implicit biases.
Unconscious biases can be contrary to what we explicitly believe.
Even though we may consciously oppose stereotypes about groups, our implicit biases may not align with our beliefs. Unconscious biases are so ingrained in our belief systems that we may justify our unconscious responses even if they go against our values. For example, someone may believe that people of color are just as competent as white people but then choose not to give a project to a particular individual whom they perceive as less knowledgeable.
Unconscious biases can be in favor or against others in your in-group.
Your in-group are the people whom you most closely identify with demographically. In most situations, individuals hold biases that favor their in-groups; however, it is possible to hold biases against your own in-group too. For example, a Latinx person might hear their Latinx coworker’s foreign accent and subsequently overexplain a concept more than they would with a native English speaker.
Unconscious biases can be unlearned with time and effort.
Even though implicit biases are inherently unconscious, you can still make efforts to change your biases through debiasing techniques.
Where do unconscious biases come from?
As humans developed over time, our brains didn’t have the capacity to carefully sort through all of the information that we take in automatically and instantaneously. According to psychologist Dr. Timothy Wilson, author of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, we are faced with around 11 million pieces of information at any moment; however, our brains can only process 40 bits of information at a time. Therefore, our brains developed heuristics, or mental shortcuts such as unconscious biases, to seek out similarities and patterns. Our tendency to favor similarity leads us to assign more value to things, people, and groups who are like us and place less value on those who are unlike us.
Throughout our lives, our biases are shaped by our cultures, experiences, developmental histories, and self-perceptions. Through the intersection of these factors, unconscious biases are rooted deep in our subconscious from an early age and, if we’re not careful, can continue through adulthood, and thus into the workplace.
What are examples of unconscious bias in the workplace?
There is certainly no shortage of cognitive biases. Neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered dozens so far, and due to the unconscious nature of these biases, there may be others we haven’t studied yet.
So how do these unconscious biases in the workplace manifest? Below are nine of the most common biases seen in the work environment:
1. In-group bias/Similarity bias/Affinity bias
What is it: In-group or similarity bias refers to the positive association and preference that we have for people who share our same background, culture, or behaviors. We tend to favor people who are more like us, giving them preferential treatment, and by spending more time with those people, it may alter our sense of normality.
Real-life example: A white male V.P. chooses to hire employees who are also white males around his age and who live in his neighborhood. When asked why he hasn’t hired anyone of a different background recently, he says that there are limited options available in the talent pool.
How to combat this bias: When interacting with people around you, slow down and consider why you’ve chosen to interact with someone in a certain way. Ask yourself if you’re distributing opportunities to everyone across your team or in your talent pool equally.
2. Out-group bias
What is it: Out-group bias refers to the negative perception of people who are different from us. This bias often divides people into an “us vs. them” mentality, and this can cause people to exclude individuals in the out-group from tasks, decision-making, or company culture.
Real-life example: A start-up company was founded by people in their 20s. As the organization has grown, they have hired people who are over the age of 50. Marcos and Pieter, some of the “millennials” of the company, complain quietly around the coffee machine about how difficult it has been to train the “baby boomers” on how to use their CRM. Pieter tells Marcos that he can make his life easier by just giving the data entry tasks to Pieter instead.
How to combat this bias: Take the time to learn more about the people in your out-group. If you have questions about the out-group’s culture or behaviors, gain some foundational knowledge by reading articles or watching videos online about the out-group. If you have specific questions, it is more effective to establish relationships with those out-group members so that you can ask those genuine questions in a psychologically safe space. In the workplace, if you find yourself justifying why someone from the out-group should be passed over for a particular opportunity, think about what you can do to help the person develop their skills and achieve success.
3. Confirmation bias
What is it: Confirmation bias is the tendency to focus on, search for, or interpret evidence that confirms our beliefs or assumptions and avoids or diminishes evidence that contradicts those beliefs or assumptions.
Real-life example: Mariana, an account executive on the Sales team, didn’t greet her team member Selma when Selma first started at the company. Selma thinks that Mariana doesn’t like her, and through further interactions over the next few weeks, Selma notices and remembers each time that she and Mariana have a “negative” interaction, and this deepens her conviction.
How to combat this: Playing the "devil's advocate" in this situation by actively seeking disconfirming data can prevent confirmation bias from distorting your perspective. Ask for a second opinion from a friend or colleague who may know the person or station for an objective opinion before you provide them with data from your own perspective.
4. The Halo Effect/Horns Effect
What is it: The Halo Effect occurs when we observe a positive trait about a person and we then assume that they must have other great traits. In the Horns Effect, we observe a negative trait about a person and assume that they have other negative aspects. Both the Halo Effect and the Horns Effect consequently result in confirmation bias.
Real-life example of the Halo Effect: When JaVon started at the organization, he arrived early to the office and stayed late every day, and for his first assignment, he wrote a lengthy, informative e-Guide. Shortly after, his manager Deana began to assign him more projects; however, as his performance began to decline, Deana continued to assign him more projects, citing his first assignment as an indication of his success.
Real-life example of the Horns Effect: When Paolo discusses the new features of his company’s website with his team, he stutters through parts of his presentation. His employees assume from his stuttering that he lacks knowledge about the new features and that he was unprepared for the presentation, and when they need help in future projects, they approach other managers instead.
How to combat this bias: Just like with the confirmation bias, examining your mindset and looking for disconfirming evidence is important. To lessen the Halo Effect, stay engaged with your people and their performance, coaching areas in which they can improve. If you tend to have negative opinions about a person, actively think of things that they did well; keep in mind that, with encouragement and proper coaching, your people will grow into the stellar employees they have the potential to be.
What is it: Groupthink, also known as the “corporate nod,” is the tendency to think and make decisions as a group that discounts contrarian ideas. Groupthink is related to the confirmation bias, as people don’t actively seek disconfirming evidence. Environments that lack diversity of thought and psychological safety are especially susceptible to groupthink.
Real-life example: When SwissAir decided to restructure its board of directors, the subsequent lack of expertise and homogeneity of the group resulted in unethical practices that eventually led to financial ruin. The group did not consider information that would go against their decision-making. Without the psychological safety needed for people to feel secure in raising objections, the company made disastrous choices.
How to combat this bias: Incorporate individuals from various backgrounds or departments in your meeting and have them offer their input or feedback. They can provide a fresh perspective that could allow your team to think differently.
6. False consensus effect
What is it: The false consensus effect causes people to incorrectly assume that others share their same assumptions, beliefs, opinions, or preferences. This causes people to avoid seeking opposing information and shuts down others’ ability to contribute their perspectives.
Real-life example: Jermaine and Nadeera conducted a sales demo for a team of six individuals. However, Jermaine and Nadeera did most of the talking during the call and talked over their prospects’ questions. They asked leading questions such as, “Isn’t this a great feature?” and “You would be using this daily, right?”. When the call ended, they believed that the prospect loved the product; however, when they followed up with the potential customer, the team replied that they were not interested.
How to combat this bias: Avoid making assumptions at all costs. Even if you think you know what the other person might say, ask for their opinion and pay attention to their answer. Participate in active listening by reflecting on what they say to ensure you comprehend their message.
7. Overconfidence bias
What is it: The overconfidence bias occurs when we place too much emphasis on expertise or opinions when making decisions or when we are overconfident in our abilities. People who are considered experts in their field or who have a lot of technical knowledge are especially vulnerable to this bias.
Real-life example: When brainstorming the newest marketing strategy, Haadjer makes a suggestion and Grace writes her idea on the whiteboard. However, Muhammad, with a master’s degree in Marketing and Strategy in addition to a 10-year tenure at the company, says, “I really don’t think that idea would work.” Grace erases Haadjer’s idea from the whiteboard and the team continues brainstorming without further addressing Haadjer’s suggestion.
How to combat this bias: Maintain a mindset of curiosity and experimentation. In today’s world, the continuous evolution of business practices and technology means that the processes that worked six months ago may not work today. Being open to trying new things will not only ensure your team members’ ideas are included, it’s just good business.
8. Availability bias
What is it: The availability bias is when we rely on information that is readily available. The available information can be the result of the primacy effect, in which people tend to remember the information that comes first in a sequence, or the recency effect, in which people tend to remember information that was provided most recently. However, information that happens to be more salient does not necessarily mean that it should be used to make decisions, especially if we make generalizations using a specific data point.
Real-life example: Fatima called her friend Wilbur on the way to work, who in conversation said, “So many people who learned English as a second language just don’t have the same grammatical knowledge as native speakers.” When she sat down at her desk and opened her email, her supervisor asked her to send her article to a co-worker for proofreading. Fatima looked at the calendar and saw that Katarzyna and Zhou were available; she then sent her document to Zhou instead of Katarzyna, who has a Polish accent.
How to combat this bias: We are susceptible to unconscious bias in the workplace when we are rushing to accomplish something quickly. Slow down and take a little extra time to think through all of your available options, not just the ones that come to you the fastest.
9. Anchoring bias
What is it: The anchoring bias occurs when the first piece of information serves as a foundation for the subsequent discussion, meeting, or decision-making process. The anchoring piece of information, if not questioned, can lead to actions and decisions that are based on false assumptions.
Real-life example: A company is moving to a bigger space. When touring office buildings, the realtor, Lionel, asks Joon about their top need for the new office. Joon says that their number one priority is to have a space with a lot of windows and an open floor plan. Joon visits fifteen locations and chooses the location that best fits their top need. Once the furniture is moved and the office is set up, the new employees arrive at the building. Joon didn’t consider that there was no ramp to the front door of the facility, and Boris, who uses a wheelchair, can no longer access the building.
How to combat this bias: When making decisions, reflect on why you’ve chosen the anchoring information, and actively consider which other kinds of information might also serve as your “anchor”. Before making your final decision, encourage your team members to seek additional data.
How can I identify which unconscious biases affect my perspective?
One of the characteristics of unconscious biases is that we may not even know that we have them; if this is the case, how do we even know which biases we suffer from?
Harvard’s Project Implicit, a non-profit organization that was founded in 1998, offers a way that you and your team can discover your subconscious preferences. The Implicit Association Tests, also known as IATs, can provide insight into which preferences you may have on a variety of categories, such as age, religion, sexuality, skin tone, race, weight, gender, and disability. While there are objections to these tests, such as the fact that people may consciously try to alter their subconscious answers and that these tests may not accurately represent how the test-taker will behave in real-life situations, the IATs serve as a window into how our perceptions are affected by subconscious stereotypes.
How does unconscious bias in the workplace affect your organization?
Unconscious bias in the workplace has the potential to impact every aspect of the organization. From the very beginning of the employee’s onboarding experience to the day-to-day working environment to performance reviews, we must be aware of how we interact with the people around us.
Hiring bias can prevent teams from onboarding people of different backgrounds.
Your team may be unknowingly blocking competent prospective hires from your talent pool through your hiring practices. From gender bias, in which the wording of the job description in the application may hinder people from applying, to primacy bias, which may anchor you to preconceived notions about the interviewee from the moment they walk in the door, unconscious bias can be pervasive in the process. And the results can be detrimental; one study of implicit bias in the hiring process showed that Black applicants without a criminal record were about as likely to be called for a second interview as a White applicant with a criminal record when the résumés were otherwise identical.
You can read more in detail about how to spot the multiple biases through the hiring process in our article, “How to Reduce Hiring Bias to Build a More Diverse Talent Pipeline”.
The “Prove It Again” bias can lead to less inclusion in the office.
Just having people of diverse backgrounds in your workplace is not enough to retain employees; people need to feel like they belong in your company culture to be engaged and reach their full productive potential. Representation does not simply equate to presence; your people should be involved in leadership, mid-level positions, and decision-making too. Greg Fairchild, the Isidore Horween Research Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, advises against the “diversity at the hat and shoes” model, in which there are a lot of people with diverse backgrounds in the lowest ranks of companies and a few in the top leadership positions, but not many people in the mid-level positions of organizations.
The “prove it again” bias, in which people tend to view white men as more competent than people of other races and women, has resulted in white men obtaining more leadership positions than any other group. Reversely, this may also impact workload assignments; black and female employees are more often assigned to office housework than white male employees. To combat this bias, leaders need to acknowledge that this bias exists and actively work to create psychological safety within their teams so that all voices can be heard.
Less diverse workforces can lead to more bias in product design.
We mentioned earlier how more homogenous environments can stifle creativity and lead to groupthink. This lack of diversity can also affect production. Studies have shown that having a more diverse workforce can reduce unconscious biases built into algorithms used to predict people’s preferences and behavior. These algorithms affect how we consume information, which products we choose to buy, and how people are offered services such as credit loans and book recommendations. The inclusion of different perspectives is key to preventing suboptimal production outputs.
How can we combat unconscious bias in the workplace?
While the nature of unconscious biases means that they are so ingrained in our automatic thinking that we don’t even notice them, it is possible to diminish their impact. The unlearning process requires consistent training over time. Blue Ocean Brain offers unconscious bias in the workplace training in a microlearning format, which means that your employees would only have to spend 10-15 minutes a week to gain the benefit of this training. Dripped out all year long wherever they need it (LMS, email, or company messaging), unconscious bias training can be achievable and accessible for everyone.
So what are the fundamental components of unconscious bias training? We’ve outlined them below for you.
Recognize that biases exist.
Awareness of your unconscious bias in the workplace is the first step, and for some, this mindfulness exercise can be difficult at first as they begin to stretch this previously unused muscle. To prepare to tackle their implicit biases, employees should ask themselves:
- Am I willing to challenge my own beliefs?
- What impact would there be on my pride if I were to learn that my views were incorrect?
- Have I genuinely sought out alternative viewpoints?
- Is it possible I’m wrong?
- Are biases against me impacting my own performance?
Being open to learning and growing in ways that they have not had the opportunity to access before can be challenging for some employees. However, with continuous education and mindfulness, the resulting mere-exposure effect (the feeling of being comfortable with something due to the increased exposure to it) can allow even the most hardened employees to be more receptive over time.
Identify your triggers.
We are not necessarily susceptible to unconscious bias every minute of our day. To discover when we are most vulnerable to biases, we must pinpoint our triggers. Is it when we are in a rush to complete a task? Is it when we are most stressed? Once employees identify which biases they might be more predisposed to throughout their workday, they should reflect on the reason why they happen and stop periodically to check in with themselves to see if they’re experiencing a trigger. In our busy world, we’re asked to work faster than ever before, but taking the time to slow down, breathe, and engage in mindful action can prevent mistakes caused by implicit biases.
Stay open to feedback.
People like to say that they want feedback, and they do; however, unless someone is taught how to receive feedback, it can be very easy for people to disengage with the feedback. We often get defensive when receiving feedback, especially when it's about our unconscious biases because we don’t like hearing information that’s inconsistent with how we view ourselves. (And we tend to view ourselves positively!) In her book Insight, organizational psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich states that 95% of us think we possess strong self-awareness, but only 10-15% of us actually have it. When our opinions or beliefs are so intertwined with our self-image, disconfirming information has the potential to damage our core concepts of self, and we then avoid the situation or feedback.
To provide feedback to employees the way they want and need to hear it, leaders can create a feedback culture that provides a safe space for communicating information that results in employee growth. We can’t fix our unconscious biases alone, and outside perspectives can help us to acknowledge our bias blind spots.
Continuously educate yourself about these biases and about people who are different from you.
With technological developments and increased globalization, the world around us is changing faster than ever. Just like with many aspects of our jobs, continuous learning is essential to staying current, and it is no different with unconscious bias in the workplace. You can follow these four steps to start your journey in bias education:
Step 1: Be more positive.
Before you begin, attune your mindset to be positive and optimistic. This will help you to curb your judgment and avoid becoming defensive. Positive practices include:
- Turning negatives into positives whenever possible by finding and praising the “good” in every situation, even in negative circumstances.
- Challenging yourself to give the benefit of the doubt by coming up with positive explanations as to why someone may act the way they do.
- Imagining saying your thoughts out loud; if you think the other person would react negatively to those thoughts, reframe your thoughts more positively.
- Avoiding over-generalizing negative situations, as this leads to thinking in extremes.
By implementing these actions, you are priming yourself to be receptive to new information, and this will make your learning process go more smoothly.
Step 2: Seek opposing views.
Jeff Weiner, former CEO of LinkedIn, once said, “Don’t be a know-it-all; instead, be a learn-it-all.” Research information and seek opinions and perspectives that are different from yours, and avoid making assumptions about what others think and why they have those thoughts. There’s no shortage of new ideas out there, and you’ll find that, due to the recency effect, it becomes easier to recall these opposing views during your decision-making.
Step 3: Engage in discussion to further your understanding of new information.
Holding discussion groups in which people can learn from each other about new ideas is a great way to communicate information. However, many companies find this to be a delicate balance; not only do people speak from different perspectives, but they interpret information from different perspectives as well, and this can be challenging when moderating civil discourse. Blue Ocean Brain offers resources to help managers lead discussions around sensitive topics, such as unconscious bias in the workplace, race and cultural intelligence, bridging generation gaps, empathy and allyship, and much more.
Creating employee resource groups (ERGs) can also help to foster an inclusive environment and provide a foundation for having these discussions.
Step 4: Empathize with people who are different from you.
Fostering close relationships with people who are different from you is one of the fastest ways to begin to see the world through a different lens. Reaching out to people in your workplace or community with genuine interest not only can help you forge new friendships but will also keep you engaged with the ways in which different groups of people are treated by the majority community.
Step 5. Take action to do something differently.
Making small changes, even starting with one action at a time, leads to the eventual unlearning of habitual thinking and speech. Even something as minor as asking a different person to lead a meeting can serve to model your ideal work environment. Here are a few things you can do to take action toward becoming an unconscious bias interrupter at work:
Develop an action plan: You can’t change your company culture overnight. However, committing to change and modifying your practices to meet your goals will create lasting change. Check out our Unconscious Bias Learning Journey for more information on how Blue Ocean Brain can help you meet your goals.
Change your language: Language can affect people’s perceptions. By substituting words that reinforce biases with more neutral words, such as saying, “Hey everyone” vs. “Hey guys” or by saying “salesperson” instead of “salesman”, you can lessen the impact of unconscious bias in everyday language.
You can also avoid the name bias, or the tendency to view people more negatively when their names are hard to pronounce, by asking the person how to pronounce their name. Learning someone’s name properly is common courtesy and helps them to feel included in your work environment.
Visualize positive interactions: Imagining positive and productive interactions with people of different genders, races, ages, identities, body sizes, and ethnicities can rewire your brain to associate positive feelings with those people.
Audit your work processes: Unconscious bias in the workplace can be most prevalent during hiring processes, work assignments, performance evaluations, and compensation. Methodically reevaluating your procedures can be key in lessening the impact of bias.