How Does Unconscious Bias Affect the Workplace?

The worst problems in the workplace are often those people do not recognize while they are happening. One of the most infamous examples is “unconscious bias,” which can cause a variety of workplace tensions and may be difficult to root out. Unconscious bias is one of the true challenges of any HR leader, but it’s important to know how to mitigate it through employee education and training.

In this guide, we’re tackling what it means to have an unconscious bias, why it can cause trouble in the workplace, and how to improve the situation without causing additional issues. Let’s dive in with some base definitions. 

Two colleagues in a lively discussion at the office.

What Is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias or implicit bias refers to preconceived notions that influence decisions or behavior in the workplace, even when those involved aren’t aware it is happening. It’s a form of prejudice that can occur automatically, and may be related to a range of views regarding race, age, religion, sexuality, and much more. This can be particularly challenging to deal with because those showing unconscious bias tend to believe they are acting correctly and may have not had their notions challenged before.

Traditionally, businesses cover these topics briefly in orientation and often avoid them afterward, as they can lead to awkward discussions (or worse). But in recent years we have seen businesses–and HR departments in particular–confront biases more openly, as they have been more openly addressed in other parts of society. There are good reasons for this from a business perspective: The combined costs of replacing American workers who leave due to discrimination or unfairness is estimated to be over $60 billion a year, not accounting for any legal costs or settlements resulting from lawsuits over discrimination.

As a result, HR leaders are beginning to take a more involved, ongoing role in identifying and preventing unconscious bias in the workplace. 

The Types of Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias stems from stereotypes that people believe without realizing it, or stereotypes people believe are true without realizing they are wrong and harmful. Common examples found in the workplace include: 

1. Gender bias

Gender bias occurs when one gender is preferred over another in the workplace. That could mean women are passed over for certain positions because decision-makers believe that men are more suited to work in those positions. It can also lead to the infamous pay gap between men and women working in the same positions. Women in general are less likely to be promoted, and significantly less likely to be considered for leadership positions, regardless of their qualifications. This can also lead to businesses choosing poor leaders because of an unconscious bias that they are automatically better than the alternative.

2. Racial bias

Discrimination against someone because of their perceived race is one of the most common types of biases in the workplace, but it can also be one of the most subtle. It can manifest in many ways, from dismissing applications from those with perceived “ethnic” names to refusing to promote those of a different race. In the past, businesses have started diversity programs to help improve in this area, with mixed results. Racial bias can be deeply entrenched in the ways people behave in the workplace, and it can be connected to structural racism, even when companies are working to improve.  

3. Age bias

This includes all kinds of assumptions about someone’s age. We see two examples frequently in the workplace: Assuming older employees don’t understand or like technology, and assuming younger employees are not suitable for leadership positions or more responsibility. Age biases can also manifest as believing employees should be paid more or less based on their age, not their position. 

4. Sexuality bias

This is similar to racial and gender biases but involves assumptions about someone’s sexuality, especially when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. Again, this can lead to people being passed over for promotions despite their qualifications, lower pay, not being considered for certain positions, and more.

5. Affinity bias

This type of unconscious bias can be a problem even for those who are watchful for their own biases: It occurs when an employee favors another employee because they are both similar in some way. They could have similar hobbies, lifestyles, personalities, education, backgrounds, friends in common, etc. When this becomes an affinity bias, it leads to favoritism and exclusion, often without people realizing it has happened.

6. Beauty/Appearance bias

Here, employees make assumptions based on certain physical traits. For example, women considered more attractive may be less often considered for leadership or “serious” roles. Workers who are taller may be more likely to be promoted (even the infamous statistic about CEOs being far taller than average remains true in the American workplace). Other factors like weight, skin color, and even hairstyle may be involved. 

7. The “Horns effect” bias

Here, the unconscious bias takes one poorly perceived trait or feature of an employee and uses it to make many more negative assumptions about that person. HR departments can encounter this when making hiring decisions, where a single trait–say, a nose piercing or blue hair–can lead a hiring manager to make many poor assumptions about a person. The opposite bias is fittingly called the “Halo effect,” and can also lead to problems in the workplace.

8. Contrast effect bias

This is a particular recruiting bias related to the Halo effect mentioned above. It happens when a recruiter has a particularly great interview with an applicant they really like and then start comparing that to all other interviews they do for some time after. This can encourage a number of other biases.

How Does Unconscious Bias Affect the Workplace?

Unconscious bias typically results in negative outcomes. Studies have shown that around 33% of those who report workplace bias feel alienated, and 34% withhold their own ideas and solutions from the organization. A troubling 80% of them would not refer others to their employer. That adds up to a loss of productivity, useful ideas, referrals for positions, recommendations to potential customers, and much more.

These issues can also result in health problems. Stress caused by working in a hostile workplace can lead to illness, increased accidents, and a greater likelihood to be absent. Ultimately, workplaces that struggle with biases can see higher turnover as employees leave for more accepting businesses.

So far, we’ve been looking at unconscious bias from an internal HR perspective. But it’s important to keep in mind that unconscious bias will also affect the way that employees think about and treat customers or business partners. There are many external consequences to these kinds of biases as well.

How Employee Training Can Help

Both organizations and the people who are a part of them can change. A concerted effort throughout the organization and led by HR can be effective to reduce workplace biases and help people understand their unconscious biases. As mentioned, past attempts at diversity programs and similar efforts have struggled to make an impact, especially when biases aren’t conscious decisions. Today’s HR teams are using  newer, holistic approaches, including tactics like: 

  • Creating thorough employee surveys to help gauge workplace bias–typically anonymous so that employees feel comfortable being honest in their responses
  • Implementing blind recruitment hiring practices that hide names, age, gender, and other factors that can create unconscious bias
  • Using gender-neutral language in workplace memos and recruitment
  • Holding regular diversity events as part of the organization’s community involvement, from supporting pride days to celebrating important holidays in other cultures
  • Using diversity tests as part of employee training: Harvard’s Project Implicit tests are an excellent example, as they are designed to help people recognize unconscious biases they may have
  • Creating leadership training specifically to help leaders recognize unconscious bias and learn techniques to reduce bias in their teams
  • Finding ways to change the workplace structure and decision-making processes to help reduce the impact of unconscious bias
  • Including communication training to help teach employees how those from different cultures or backgrounds may communicate differently

Final Notes

Unconscious bias in the workplace is one of the trickiest issues for HR leaders to handle, and solutions can vary between organizations. If you’d like to learn more, we suggest starting with KnowledgeCity’s guide to unconscious bias and how it works. A good complement to this guide is the series on cultural competency in the workplace, which dives more into the roots of unconscious bias and how cultural awareness can help address core problems.

If you are ready to start building an action plan to address unconscious bias, consider downloading our free guide on building a culturally competent workplace. You will find a variety of tools to analyze workplace dynamics, watch for bias, and facilitate helpful communication.

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