Unconscious Bias Examples and How to Overcome Them

By Betterworks
October 29, 2021
10 minute read

Implicit biases are inherently unconscious and therefore unknown to us. They exist in a blind spot, making them challenging to pinpoint. One way to bring those biases to light is by using unconscious bias examples.

Unconscious bias presents many risks to an organization. Overcoming its effects can help you improve diversity and inclusion and develop more effective, objective hiring practices — resulting in a more resilient organization where innovation can flourish.

But we can’t interrupt the effects of unconscious bias until we understand what it is and how it affects business and workforce decisions. Use these definitions and examples of unconscious bias in the workplace to move toward better decisions.

What Is Unconscious Bias?

Before getting into unconscious or implicit biases, we should address explicit biases. These are biases we know we have, whether they’re directed at an individual or a group. Individuals who are overtly racist or sexist, for example, are typically aware of their bias. Indeed, they may be open about it and consider it a part of their identity.

Implicit biases, on the other hand, affect our judgment or behaviors without us realizing it. Many people are uncomfortable discussing unconscious biases because admitting to them is difficult. But we all have implicit biases.

Unconscious bias results from our brains organizing the information we’re bombarded with daily. We can’t process every piece of information as we’re presented with it, so our brain creates shortcuts to help us categorize what we’re perceiving. Based on mental associations, this categorization allows us to process information in larger doses. 

The downside to this, of course, is that processing information in this way often produces bias. Stereotypes, for example, take a few arbitrary traits of a few members of a group and generalize those traits to the whole group. This is, in theory, efficient — but it also leads to sweeping assumptions that aren’t true and may even be extremely hurtful.

Why Is Unconscious Bias Important?

Left unchecked, unconscious bias can have a detrimental impact on your workforce. 

One of the worst consequences of unconscious bias is the tendency to believe (or not question) the assumptions our brains make implicitly. And when we believe something without questioning it, we’re more likely to act on that assumption — even when it isn’t true.

This outcome creates real harm. When we act based on our biases, we can adversely impact historically marginalized groups. For that matter, we can have questionable judgment in general because we may unconsciously act on incorrect assumptions. 

The judgments prompted by our biases rarely produce good business decisions. When we act on racial or gender bias during the hiring process, we risk passing over candidates who are objectively the best fit for the role. Why? Because an unrelated characteristic prompted us to make an assumption about that person, and that assumption trumped everything else we learned about them.

This outcome is unfair to qualified candidates who are passed over and to employees whose ideas and work aren’t appropriately within the company culture.

Unabated unconscious bias can also lead to legal trouble. When hiring, in particular, you have to be able to provide clear, job-related reasons why some candidates are selected to move forward while others aren’t. If, for instance, a hiring manager passes over a candidate with a disability because their bias leads them to conclude the candidate is inherently incapable of performing at the same level as peers without a disability, your company could be open to a discrimination claim.

4 Factors Contributing to Implicit Bias

When it comes to implicit bias in the workplace, there’s a lot at stake. Understanding the factors that contribute to workplace unconscious bias can help you take control of them.

Workplace Culture

Your culture reinforces attitudes, norms, and values that can intensify or mitigate the effects of unconscious bias. If your culture is more likely to recognize and promote younger employees, for example, ageism is more likely to become ingrained in the culture.

A carefully crafted culture can reinforce positive norms, too. Rewarding inclusive behaviors, for example, demonstrates the value you place on cultivating a diverse and equitable workplace.

Governance and Processes

Leaders’ attitudes and behaviors can have a significant impact on unconscious bias. If leaders don’t acknowledge how our biases can affect judgment, and they refuse to implement bias-interrupting processes, unconscious bias can develop unchecked.

Your people processes should specifically address how to mitigate unconscious bias. Checkpoints in the hiring process, for example, can help recruiters stop and consider their decisions from a more critical perspective.

Visibility is essential at the governance level, too. If you don’t have enough diversity across the organization, you’re less likely to have different perspectives that mitigate the effects of bias. As you work to build an inclusive culture, emphasize elevating diverse voices.

Personal Background

Each individual brings their own preconceptions to the workplace, which often manifests as unconscious biases. Workplace education is vital here because biases are often the result of what we’ve learned from the people closest to us.

To counter the effects of bias, find ways — like unconscious bias training and workshops — to help employees recognize their preconceptions and how those affect decision-making.

Social Stereotypes

We’re bombarded with stereotypes from our culture and norms. People from insular backgrounds, who are less exposed to differences, can be especially vulnerable to believing these stereotypes. While you can’t control what employees bring to the workplace, you can educate them and help them shift their mindset and think more critically.

How Does Unconscious Bias Affect Your Organization?

Although unconscious bias isn’t intentional, acting on our biases can still have severe consequences for the workforce and the business.

The most obvious consequence of implicit bias is creating a homogeneous workforce. Generally, we’re biased toward people who are most similar to us. That can cause recruiters and hiring managers to unconsciously replicate the types of people, traits, and personalities already within the workforce rather than adding different types.

Diversity is key to creativity and innovation so that a homogenous workforce can slow down your business’s growth potential.

Unconscious bias also influences who receives development opportunities. Left unchecked, unconscious bias creates an environment that, for many employees, will be unhappy and even unhealthy. When diverse teams and employees feel they have to conform to succeed, they can become disengaged and depressed. 

Mitigating the effects of bias in your workforce, by contrast, can prepare your business for success.

10 Examples of Unconscious Biases in the Workplace

There are many types of unconscious bias that can negatively affect your workforce. Check out these examples of implicit bias in the workplace to see what different types of biases look like in action — and how they could be affecting your talent decisions.

Affinity Bias

Affinity bias, also known as similarity bias, describes a bias toward people who are similar to us. We often believe that we’ll get along better with people with similar characteristics. A hiring manager might be biased toward a candidate with similar interests or a similar background, for example.

Age Bias

Ageism is a bias based on assumptions about what people of a certain age range can or can’t do or their attitudes around work. An example of age bias is when a hiring manager rejects an older candidate for a digital role based on the assumption that they wouldn’t be able to use new software.

Attribution Bias

Attribution bias is bias derived from attributing a specific outcome to external circumstances rather than an individual’s own efforts. A manager might assume, for example, that a woman who succeeded at a specific challenging task did so because of external factors (like help from others) rather than her own efforts.

Beauty Bias

Beauty bias is a bias towards people we deem to be more attractive. A conventionally attractive employee might receive more interest and investment from leaders than someone they deem to be unattractive.

Color and Culture Bias

Color and culture bias is a bias against someone because of their race, ethnicity, or culture. Dress codes that state that box braids, dreadlocks, or natural hair on Black employees are “unprofessional” are biased against racial and cultural expression.

Name bias, a type of color and culture bias, results in assumptions about someone’s identity based on their name. It’s usually rooted in color and culture, gender, or age bias. Resumes with names that are traditionally Black, Latinx, or Asian often get less attention from recruiters and hiring managers, for example. Many companies use technology to remove identifying factors — such as names — from resumes and applications to minimize this type of bias.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias refers to the human tendency to find evidence confirming our biases in occurrences or situations — even if that evidence is purely circumstantial. Confirmation bias might manifest as a manager assuming that an employee with a learning disability performed poorly on a task because of their disability. In that instance, the manager doesn’t follow through and investigate factors that might be more directly related, such as poor directions or training. 

Conformity Bias

Conformity bias refers to our tendency to be influenced by and conform to the majority. If four out of five people on an interview panel have similar backgrounds, the final panelist may go along with the majority rather than contest an issue. A more diverse panel can empower minority panelists to raise concerns, which prevents the majority perspective from becoming dominant by default.

Contrast Effect

The contrast effect is a bias that often results in assigning value to something based on its relationship or comparison with something else. If you have a very high performer on your team, for example, you might appraise other team members’ performance in relation to that performer instead of on objective baselines.

Gender Bias

Gender bias is a bias toward or against someone because of their gender. Research has shown, for example, that female employees tend to receive less specific and actionable feedback from male managers, which can affect their development and future opportunities.

Halo Effect and Horns Effect

The halo effect occurs when one factor that you perceive as positive overshadows all other factors. Similarly, the horns effect occurs when a factor perceived as negative influences your decision making.

The halo effect in action might look like a hiring manager favoring a candidate for graduating from their alma mater — even if that doesn’t have an impact on their performance potential. An example of the horns effect, on the other hand, could be a manager giving an employee an overall low performance rating because one aspect of their performance is not up to par.

How to Reduce Unconscious Biases in the Workplace

The best way to interrupt the effects of bias before they harm the workforce is to create processes that leave little to no room for bias to intrude.

For example, because name bias can cause recruiters to favor certain candidates’ applications over others’, removing names from applications prevents that bias from taking effect. This practice forces recruiters to look at skills, abilities, and other traits that actually influence future performance.

Using assessments in the hiring process can help recruiters and hiring managers select candidates who are objectively best for the role. Assessment tools that are valid, reliable, and fair result in better hiring decisions and provide legal defensibility against discrimination claims.

The data you gather from assessments can be compared to what’s required for the role via an objective scorecard. The candidate that scores highest is, objectively, the best fit for the role — regardless of their personal identifying factors such as education or socioeconomic background.

Similarly, using set interview questions prevents hiring managers from going off-script, which can cause them to seek information about identifying traits they don’t need to know. Fixed questions corresponding to specific skills or experiences (“Tell me about a time when …”) and can contribute to a more objective decision. 

During the employee life cycle, intentional performance enablement practices can put guardrails around feedback and promotion criteria. When managers are trained on giving effective feedback and held accountable in their own performance appraisals, unconscious biases are less likely to affect results.

5 Tips for Avoiding Unconscious Bias

It’s hard to avoid something we aren’t aware of. That’s why these tips for building awareness are so important for eliminating bias in the workplace.

Acknowledge Your Unconscious Biases

Acknowledging that you have biases is the first and most important step to minimizing their impact.

To be clear, having implicit biases doesn’t make someone a bad person. When people feel they’ll be negatively judged for implicit bias, they often become defensive and fail to realize any positive outcomes from bias training. But when we acknowledge that everyone has biases, we can be more intentional about deciding not to act on them.

Put Yourself to the Test

While there are tests for bias (Harvard University’s implicit association test, for example), one of the best ways to recognize bias in ourselves is through implicit bias scenario exercises.

Exploring our reactions and attitudes in specific situations can help us recognize where our biases are kicking in. These are best conducted by professionals who can create a safe space to explore our biases and how they affect our decisions and behaviors.

Work to Understand Others Who Are Different from You

Recognizing our biases isn’t enough, however. If we want to work toward overcoming them, we need further education. Learning about people who are different from us — whether that’s a different gender, race, culture, orientation, or another factor — can help us recognize where our assumptions aren’t true.

While the best way to learn about others is to get to know them, workplaces should not put the onus for educating others on individual members of historically marginalized communities.

Seek Out and Share Education on Unconscious Bias

When we understand what unconscious biases are and why we have them, it’s easier to notice when we’re acting on them. Ongoing education about bias and how it operates within organizations is key to overcoming its effects.

HR professionals should be aware of how bias is affecting organizational decisions. They should also share that education with fellow leaders so everyone can become more aware of the impact of bias on the business and the workforce.

Identify Specific Real-Life Examples of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

One of the best steps you can take to avoid unconscious bias is to understand how it operates in your workplace. It’s especially important to understand where biases and assumptions are built into operational processes. These can be blind spots for us because we rarely question “the way things are.” 

In a promotion scenario, for example, which employees are most likely to be promoted? Who is most rewarded in your organizational structure and culture? Applying the concept of unconscious bias to real-life scenarios can help us identify where our processes are preventing diversity and inclusion.

Find the Best Unconscious Bias Training

Although there’s no way to overcome the biases hardwired into our brains, we can take steps to mitigate their effects.

Much of that comes down to learning. The more aware we are of our own biases, the less likely we are to pay attention to them or act on them. The right training program can help you change your mindset. Good training programs are actionable and focus on the future. They help employees recognize where bias has affected their judgment while offering solutions for overcoming its effects going forward.

Training and awareness can help overcome our personal unconscious biases. However, the best way to minimize the negative impact of unconscious bias is having exposure to people who are different from us. The more one-on-one interactions we have with someone — especially if we’re working together toward a shared goal — the more likely we are to see that person as a complete, unique individual rather than as a stereotype. And that can go a long way toward changing biased thought processes.

Applying Unconscious Bias Examples

When you consistently view your work decisions and processes through the lens of unconscious bias, you can learn how to apply these examples in your daily actions. Doing so helps achieve the mindset shift you need to think critically about how bias affects your workplace.

Overcoming the effects of unconscious bias is a journey. Set out with intention, and create a road map for pushing forward. With a plan in place, you can work to overcome the effects of unconscious bias and produce a happier, more inclusive workplace.

Learn how to reduce bias in performance management.

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