Overcoming Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Have you noticed that certain people in your workplace are treated differently? It could be a result of unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias refers to assumptions and beliefs that people develop over time due to their personal preferences and past experiences. It’s linked to several discriminatory behaviours, such as unequal pay and racial prejudice, but it can also appear in more subtle ways.

For instance, people might be judged on the clothes they wear, while our decisions can be manipulated based on the way information is presented.

We are all guilty of unconscious bias, and we must therefore take responsibility in order to achieve a healthy and equitable working environment.

In this blog, we help you recognise some of the unconscious biases that you and your team might have, and provide tips to overcome them.

What is unconscious bias in the workplace?

Unconscious bias affects almost every interaction we have at work. Humans are not infallible, and their decisions are easily swayed by preconceptions and particular circumstances.

People can exhibit biases about anything from someone’s gender to the football team they support. However, it’s important to understand they are often not doing this with malicious intent.

This is what separates unconscious bias from overt prejudice, which occurs when people are aware of their discriminatory behaviour but commit to their beliefs because they think there is a fundamental truth to them.

With unconscious bias, people still act prejudicially, but they are doing so based on intuition rather than knowledge or reason.

In the workplace, it can result in opinions, judgements and decisions being made based on assumptions and stereotypes. Certain people receive preferential treatment, while others are discriminated against.

This can lead to a lack of diversity in the workforce, a decrease in morale and productivity and an overall hostile environment. It can have a profound impact on employees’ mental and physical health.

But by recognising and addressing workplace biases, organisations can create a more equitable and supportive workplace.

Types of unconscious bias

There are three different types of bias:

  • Cognitive bias: false assumptions that we believe are based on observable facts.
  • Affective bias: emotional reactions that lead to unfair assumptions and judgements.
  • Behavioural bias: unintentional actions and behaviours, such as microaggressions, that are based on our cognitive and affective biases.

Within these categories, there are countless specific types of unconscious bias that one might fall victim to. They often overlap, with a false assumption about someone affecting the way we treat them, for example.

In this blog, we look specifically at unconscious biases that have a negative effect in the workplace. We provide twelve examples, which are split into two categories: biases that manipulate our evaluation of individuals, and biases that manipulate our evaluation of ideas.

Workplace bias #1: Employee evaluation

Unconscious biases in which we assume someone’s skills or habits based on their looks, appearance or background.

1. Gender bias

Gender bias is a tendency to associate certain qualities with different genders. The bias is almost always prejudicial against women, who are often perceived as less capable or committed to their job than men.

This can lead to women being paid less for the same job, receiving unfair performance reviews and not being considered for promotions.

Additionally, women might be subject to comments about their physical appearance, creating a hostile atmosphere that makes them feel uncomfortable and undervalued.

It’s important to note that men can also suffer from gender bias (and it would be biased itself to suggest this wasn’t possible). For example, men are discouraged from, and viewed suspiciously for, pursuing a career that is typically associated with women, such as primary school teaching.

How to avoid gender bias in the workplace

Organisations can combat gender bias by recognising that the qualities of a good employee are not necessarily tied to gender norms.

This is easier to achieve with the rise of remote working, which allows for greater flexibility and reduces physical interactions, allowing people to be judged on their work rather than their appearance.

2. Racism

Racism is a systemic problem in many parts of the world, and although much of the conversation focuses on overt prejudice, our implicit biases can be just as damaging.

Many of us have been exposed to racial stereotypes from a young age, and these often shape our views. In many cases, we don’t realise that these depictions are racist, because they are embedded in society without any particular positive or negative traits assigned to them.

However, in the West in particular, there is a tendency to emphasise negative traits associated with ethnic minorities. As a result, there is often a lack of diversity in the workplace, particularly in positions of seniority.

How to avoid racism in the workplace

There is no quick fix to eradicate unconscious racism in the workplace. The best advice is to make a concerted effort to recognise one’s own assumptions and challenge them based on what we know about specific individuals.

Some organisations have implemented diversity policies to set goals for hiring ethnic minorities, but others believe this only reinforces the idea of hiring people based on their skin colour.

Additionally, organisations located in mostly homogenous communities may find it difficult to implement diversity policies.

3. Ageism

Ageism occurs when someone is discriminated against based on their age. It typically applies to people who are considered too old for their job, and it’s especially common among women.

However, ageism can affect younger people too. For example, a manager might deny an employee opportunities because they assume that they are immature and untrustworthy.

It’s worth noting that it isn’t ageism if the judgement is supported with reasonable evidence. For instance, if a manager of a supermarket refuses to give a 17-year-old night shifts because that’s when customers are more likely to buy alcohol, this isn’t ageism.

Even though the decision reduces the employee’s hours and could make them ineligible for overtime pay, there is a reasonable and practical judgement behind the decision.

How to avoid ageism in the workplace

To avoid ageism in the workplace, it’s important to create policies outlining the risks of age-based discrimination, and to encourage employees to clearly state any decisions that are made based on an employee’s age.

4. Physical attractiveness bias

Physical attractiveness bias is the tendency to make assumptions about someone based on their appearance. At its core is the flawed belief that physical beauty leads to success, and it can result in people giving preferential treatment to those that they find attractive.

Although this bias is often associated with sexual attraction, it’s usually more complicated than that. Consider, for instance, how we make assumptions about people’s personalities based on their appearance: we might believe that someone who’s well-dressed is successful and responsible, while someone who is overweight lacks self-esteem.

These inferences may be true, but like all unconscious biases, they are clouded by past experiences rather than specific observations.

When it comes to physical beauty, our past experiences are often linked to celebrity culture, where being good-looking is practically a requirement for fame.

As a result, we tend to fall into the trap of positive discrimination, associating anyone attractive with the traits that we might find in a celebrity, such as wealth, popularity, confidence, ambition and creativity.

However, it can also lead to negative discrimination. A hiring manager or colleague might dismiss the accomplishments of an attractive person, assuming that they received preferential treatment, and conclude that the person was spoiled, conceited or arrogant.

How to avoid physical attractiveness bias in the workplace

If you find yourself frequently either praising or criticising an employee who you recognise is attractive, ask yourself whether there is actual evidence in support of your statements.

You should also consider whether such traits make them any better at their job.

5. Halo effect

The halo effect is a term coined by the psychologist Edward Thorndike in the 1920s to describe the way people form a positive impression of someone by emphasising one of their admirable qualities or traits.

It gets its name because we see the person as inherently good – like a saint – based on first impressions.

An example of the halo effect would be a hiring manager who sees that a candidate graduated from a prestigious school and concluding that they will excel at the job.

The manager builds a picture of this person as smart, talented and successful based purely on their academic credentials.

How to avoid the halo effect in the workplace

The halo effect can be tricky to overcome, since we are hardwired to draw conclusions about people based on the information presented to us.

For example, there often is a correlation between one’s level of education and their knowledge, so you shouldn’t dismiss information about someone’s background.

However, it’s important not to jump to conclusions without examining whether your assumption is merited. For example, during the hiring process, you should try to steer the conversation towards the skills gained from the applicant’s academic qualifications and how they might be used in the role.

6. Horns effect

The horns effect is the opposite of the halo effect, and occurs when we draw a negative conclusion about someone by emphasising an undesirable trait.

As with the halo effect, it gets its name from biblical imagery, with the individual being perceived as an inherently bad person – like a devil – based on first impressions.

As a corollary to our previous example, a hiring manager may dismiss a candidate for going to an obscure university, getting a poor grade, or not going to university at all.

However, there are many reasons someone might not have achieved academic success, and these may not be relevant to their ability to do this job.

Moreover, the bias is subject to the hiring manager’s preferences and assumptions, and it’s possible that the individual did go to a well-respected university but the manager didn’t recognise it by name.

Another example of the horns effect is a manager concluding that an employee is bad at their job because they don’t express themselves confidently during meetings.

However, lacking confidence doesn’t necessarily mean you are not intelligent or capable, and talking about your work is a completely different skill than actually doing it.

How to avoid the horns effect in the workplace

As with the halo effect, our initial impressions of someone can be surprisingly accurate. But when these impressions have serious implications in the workplace, such as determining someone’s job prospects or how they are treated by colleagues, it’s important that we challenge our preconceptions.

If you identify a negative trait in someone, consider whether it was an isolated incident or part of a larger pattern. It’s also important to focus on qualities that are relevant to the person’s job role, rather than personal preferences about the way someone should behave.

Workplace bias #2: Assessing ideas

Unconscious biases in the way we evaluate ideas. It applies in particular to creative settings, where we might favour one idea over another not on merit but the way it was presented.

7. Conformity bias

Conformity bias is the tendency for people to think or say things that are in line with the majority, even if it doesn’t reflect their own opinion.

This can have both positive and negative effects on an organisation, depending on the situation. For example, it can prevent conflicts and encourage people to act more professionally, but it can also stifle creativity and limit discussions.

This can be especially problematic when someone recognises a problem with an idea, but feels unable to express it because they don’t want to appear negative or unhelpful.

How to avoid conformity bias in the workplace

Managers can combat conformity bias by asking team members for their opinions directly, rather than leaving the floor open for debate.

This can persuade people to provide constructive and insightful comments, rather than simply agreeing with what others say.

Additionally, managers can conclude meetings by encouraging employees to continue thinking about the idea and to raise any further thoughts they might have.

This gives the team the opportunity to consider their thoughts without the pressure of criticising people’s ideas in front of them.

8. Anchor bias

Anchor bias occurs when we form an opinion about a person or situation based on the first piece of information we receive.

For example, say that a software architect, Vikram, is asked how long it will take to integrate a new application into the organisation’s systems. The figure he gives will be used to anchor expectations, which could result in unrealistic deadlines.

This can lead to a situation where the project is delayed and Vikram is criticised, or the project is completed but it was rushed and not up to standard.

Anchor bias is also a major factor when it comes to job salaries. Organisations often don’t post salary ranges on job adverts, because it creates assumptions about the value that’s placed on candidates’ experience and suitability.

If the organisation sets the salary too high, it could deter certain people from applying, while a salary set too low could drive away qualified candidates.

Even when no salary is posted, anchor bias can still have an effect. Consider this example: Rachel is a financial analyst who has just been offered a job in a new city. She was earning £40,000 a year in her old role and was hoping to get a 10% raise, so she was shocked by the organisation’s offer of £55,000.

Even though the offer is already far more than Rachel was hoping to receive, it has anchored the negotiations and enabled her to shift her expectations.

How to avoid anchor bias in the workplace

Avoiding anchor bias can be difficult, because it’s so prevalent in our day-to-day decisions and is deeply embedded in other biases.

For example, Rachel might have underestimated her expected salary because she has been subject to gender bias in past roles, while Vikram the software architect might have given an overly ambitious deadline because he was an inexperienced professional who wants to prove himself to his superiors.

The best strategy to prevent anchor bias is to refrain from setting expectations until you are sure they are reasonable and appropriate.

Rachel, for instance, should research the average salary for her job based on similar jobs in the industry and the city she’s working in, whereas Vikram should consider the full scope of the project and available resources before making a commitment.

9. Status quo bias

Status quo bias describes our preference for things to remain unchanged, which can result in us sticking to ineffective habits.

We often encounter this bias due to our desire for comfort and familiarity, with change requiring us to learn new skills and break away from our routines.

Let’s take Sarah, for example. She’s been working as a production editor at a publishing company for several years, and was content with the paper filing system that the team used to keep details of submitted manuscripts.

One day, her boss said the company is investing in content management system software, explaining that the team would no longer have to write everything by hand or risk losing paper files.

Sarah objected, saying it would be expensive and it would take resources away from her team. Although she gave valid reasons for her objections, her opinion is potentially biased because she doesn’t want to learn a new system.

How to avoid status quo bias in the workplace

Status quo bias often manifests in relation to the implementation of new technologies or processes. The best way to combat it is to get the opinions of people who aren’t directly affected by the decision.

That’s not to say that you should ignore the thoughts of the people within the team. However, it will be clear that their opinion is biased if no one else shares their reservations.

10. Availability bias

Availability bias occurs when people base their opinions on the information that’s most readily accessible. It can lead to decisions being made based on misleading details, while the most relevant data is omitted.

Consider, for example, a marketing department that wants to track visitor engagement on its website. It uses Google Analytics to determine how users interact with their pages, using default stats, such as pageviews, time on site and bounce rate.

The team might determine that their marketing efforts are successful because these figures are consistently improving. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean visitors are engaging with what they are reading or purchasing the organisation’s products.

To measure engagement more accurately, the team would need to inspect additional data, such as scroll depth and clicks on specific elements.

How to avoid availability bias in the workplace

To combat availability bias, you should encourage the people responsible for research and reporting to link their findings to specific business objectives.

Return on investment should play a crucial role here, with almost all business processes relating to revenue in some way, whether that’s directly through income or because they provide related benefits, such as driving efficiency or improving public reputation.

If the information you’ve presented doesn’t address core business issues, consider what other information you could use that would provide better insight.

11. Recency bias

Recency bias is the tendency for recent events or experiences to influence our decisions more heavily than those occurring further in the past.

There are two forms of recency bias. The first relates to the way we perceive patterns over time. Say, for example, a manager is conducting a performance review of one of the members of her team, Alice.

Alice has been a model employee for most of the past year, but in recent weeks she’s been late a handful of times due to car trouble. When conducting the performance review, the manager is liable to unfairly portray Alice as unreliable.

(This also connects to horns bias, which we discussed earlier, with someone drawing a negative conclusion about someone based on a single experience.)

The second form of recency bias relates to the way we process data. In this example, a hiring manager has conducted a series of job interviews throughout the day. They are likely to emphasise the performance of the last few candidates, whose interviews remain fresh in their mind.

This can result in either a positive or negative bias depending on the hiring manager’s thoughts on the candidate.

How to avoid recency bias in the workplace

To combat recency bias, you must take the time to assess the full scale of anything you are assessing. Make a conscious effort to review all relevant information rather than relying on memory.

If you know you are going to be in a situation where you might fall victim to recency bias, you should take notes throughout the process.

You should also try to give information a level playing field wherever possible. Wait until the morning after a round of job interviews to draw conclusions. Likewise, when presented with information during a meeting, don’t make a snap judgement. Instead, take the opportunity to review all available data, and only then should you make a decision.

12. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to emphasise information and opinions that support our own viewpoints, while disregarding evidence that opposes them.

This bias affects our ability to think objectively, and is especially dangerous in the workplace, as it can lead to teams pursuing projects that are doomed to fail.

Let’s take Jane for example. She’s a marketing manager for a large tech company, and she’s convinced that she can boost ad revenue with an ambitious social media campaign, so she starts to build a business case.

She finds several examples of similar, successful campaigns and makes a note of them, but when she finds a story of an organisation that tried the same technique and failed spectacularly, she ignores it.

There are two ways things can backfire from here. First, Jane’s boss accepts the proposal and the campaign fails, costing the organisation money and severely damaging its reputation.

Alternatively, the boss rejects the proposal and Jane grows resentful. She is adamant that she’s right, which creates an antagonistic working relationship between the two.

(This is also an example of the horns effect, where Jane has assumed that her boss is uncooperative and difficult to work with because he didn’t approve her idea. She may even accuse him of having a status quo bias because he refuses to try a new idea, or a gender bias, because he refuses to accept a woman’s opinion.)

How to avoid confirmation bias in the workplace

As this intricate web of biases indicates, the best way to combat confirmation bias is to encourage open and honest discussions. Everyone should feel free to give their opinion, and even if no one eagerly offers up a counterpoint, you should play devil’s advocate to encourage a more rigorous debate.

This fosters critical thinking in the workplace and pushes people to consider the biases they may hold.

Be conscious of your unconscious bias

As we’ve explained throughout this article, unconscious bias can often be tackled by recognising the mental mistakes that we make. When we take the time to consider our assumptions, we gain a new perspective that fosters inclusion and promotes understanding.

You can give your team the support they need to do that with GRC eLearning’s Unconscious Bias Staff Awareness E-learning Course.

This online training course provides a comprehensive introduction to this topic, giving you and your team the skills and knowledge they need to identify and address unconscious biases.

You will learn how biases arise and the effects they can have. Plus, you’ll learn strategies for managing your assumptions.