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Employee Experience

Unconscious Bias Examples and How to Overcome Them

By Casey Pechan
October 29, 2021
8 minute read

We all have implicit biases. Simply as a result of being human, we make judgments about an individual or even an entire group based on a few factors. Though they’re part of our nature, those snap judgments don’t have to dictate decisions in the workplace. In fact, we’re obligated to overcome our biases to prevent them from hurting others.

How can we overcome something we aren’t even aware of? Implicit biases are, by their nature, unconscious and therefore unknown to us. We can still, however, disrupt those thoughts and judgments before we act on them.

Here are some examples of types of unconscious bias, and some tips and practices for overcoming them.

What Is Unconscious Bias?

Before you can mitigate the impact of unconscious bias, you have to know what it is, and how it can impact your actions. You may have heard of unconscious biases by another name: implicit bias. 

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

Implicit biases, on the other hand, affect our judgment or behaviors without us realizing it is occurring. Many people are uncomfortable discussing unconscious biases because it’s hard to admit that we have them. Understand: We all have implicit biases. The reason why lies in human psychology.

If we had to process each and every individual piece of information we encounter at any given moment, we’d probably be thrown into cognitive overload. Instead, we categorize the data we perceive. This categorization, based on mental associations, allows us to process information in larger pieces. 

The downside, 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. It also leads to sweeping assumptions that aren’t true and may be extremely hurtful.

Why Is Unconscious Bias Important?

Unconscious bias impacts how we perceive others. This, in turn, can influence our actions. And when we take action based on biases, we can create an adverse impact for historically marginalized groups. For that matter, it can lead to questionable judgment in general, since you may be unconsciously acting on an assumption that’s wrong. 

The judgments our biases prompt us to make rarely produce good business decisions. When we act on racial or gender bias occurring 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.

Beyond damaging your business by causing you to miss out on qualified personnel, bias can also pose a significant legal liability. 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 their peers without their disability, your company could be open to a discrimination claim.

3 Factors Contributing to Implicit Bias

When it comes to bias in the workplace, there’s a great deal at stake, making it essential to understand and ideally control the factors that contribute to them.

  • Culture, or the prevailing attitudes of those around us, can shape our biases. Companies have to be intentional about creating a culture that doesn’t tolerate explicit biases and puts processes in place to minimize the effects of implicit biases.
  • Governance, or the attitudes and behaviors of leaders, can have a significant impact on unconscious bias. If leaders don’t acknowledge biases can impact judgment and implement processes to interrupt them, unconscious bias can develop unchecked.
  • Personal background, especially for people from insular backgrounds since they’re less exposed to difference, can impact our perceptions and therefore our biases. Biases are often the result of what we’ve learned from the people closest to us, so workplace education is vital.

How Does Unconscious Bias Affect Your Organization?

Unconscious bias can prevent companies from becoming diverse and inclusive. When we continually hire, promote and welcome only people similar to us, we create homogeneous organizations. Organizations who favor employees with similar backgrounds, experiences, and thought processes are less likely to encourage innovations and new ways of thinking, reducing the opportunities for driving better business results.

In addition to affecting hiring and promotion decisions, unconscious bias influences who the company offers opportunities for development. It also creates an environment that, for many employees, will be unhappy, even unhealthy. When employees feel like they have to conform to be successful, they can become disengaged and depressed. 

Examples of Unconscious Biases in the Workplace

There are several types of bias that can impact your workplace. Here are some examples to help you recognize them in action.

  • Ageism is a bias based on assumptions about what individuals of a certain age can or can’t do or their attitudes around work. A hiring manager passing over an older candidate for a digital role based on an assumption that they wouldn’t be able to use new software, for example, is ageist.
  • Affinity bias describes a bias towards people who are similar to us. Most often, we believe that we’ll get along better with others who share similar characteristics with us. A hiring manager might be biased towards a candidate with similar interests or a similar background, for example.
  • 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 raise an issue with their argument or thought process. A more diverse panel can prevent the majority perspective from becoming dominant and empower minority panelists to raise concerns.
  • 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 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.
  • Weight bias is a bias against individuals based on their weight. This could manifest as a manager assuming that an employee is lazy because they’re overweight, for example, and not giving them opportunities to take on new or more challenging assignments.
  • Name bias results in assumptions about someone’s identity based on their name. It’s usually rooted in color and culture, gender or even 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 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 merits.
  • Height bias is a bias toward or against someone because of their height. Research has found that a person’s height impacts our perceptions of them, leading to higher lifetime earnings for taller individuals (controlled for age, weight and gender).
  • 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, preventing the manager from probing factors that might be more directly related, such as poor directions or training. 
  • 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, you might appraise other team members’ performance in relation to that performer instead of on their own merit.

How to Reduce Unconscious Biases in the Workplace

It’s impossible to eliminate unconscious biases, but we can put processes in place to interrupt bias so that we’re less likely to act on them. 

In hiring or promoting employees, it’s important to set and use objective criteria for making decisions. Using assessments, for example, provides data on an employee’s skills, aptitudes, and qualifications. 

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 like 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. Instead, set questions corresponding to specific skills or experiences (“Tell me about a time when…”) can contribute to a more objective decision. 

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 impact results. Learn more about performance enablement in the modern workplace.

5 Tips on How to Avoid Unconscious Biases

Acknowledge Your Unconscious Biases

Unconscious biases are implicit in the sense that they aren’t intentional and unconscious because we aren’t aware of our specific biases. But it’s a fact that everyone has unconscious bias, and acknowledging and accepting that fact is necessary before you can do the deeper work to overcome them.

Put Yourself to the Test

Unconscious bias tests can help us identify our biases and become more aware of what to watch for in our own judgments and actions. As part of its Project Implicit program, Harvard University famously developed the implicit association test (IAT) for determining whether we perceive specific groups in a positive or negative light. Taking some of those tests can help you identify your personal biases.

Work to Understand Others Who Are Different From You

When we approach someone — especially someone from a different background or status — as someone working towards the same purpose as we are, we can focus on similarities versus differences. The more you learn about changing your mindset to achieve your goals of overcoming unconscious biases, the more effective you will likely be at doing so. 

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. Understanding the types of unconscious bias can help us stay alert to those specific biases in our own judgments and actions — especially when interacting with people we might be biased against. 

Identify Specific Examples of Unconscious Bias In Your Workplace

Being specific can help you better understand what it looks like and how it manifests at your company. And if you’re training others to understand how unconscious bias impacts their role, encourage them to identify their own examples. The process of connecting bias as a concept to specific behaviors and outcomes can make that concept more real.

Find the Best Unconscious Bias Training

Training and awareness can help overcome our personal unconscious biases. But the best way to minimize the negative impact of unconscious bias is exposure to people who are different from us. 

The more one-on-one interactions we have with someone — especially if we’re working together towards a shared goal — the more likely we are to see that person as a complete, unique individual rather than as a stereotype. 

Give employees opportunities to work in cross-functional groups to gain exposure to different perspectives and roles. Since middle and hiring managers present the most risk from acting on their unconscious biases, give them opportunities to facilitate cross-functional groups so they can learn to see their employees and their peers as individuals.
Unconscious bias presents many risks to an organization. Taking steps to overcome its effects can help you improve diversity and inclusion and develop more effective, objective hiring practices — resulting in a more resilient organization where it’s easier for innovation to flourish.

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