Unconscious Bias in the Workplace: What It Is and How to Reduce It

Unconscious Bias in the Workplace: What It Is and How to Reduce It

Help employees learn to recognize their biases before they become an issue in the workplace.

Unconscious bias in the workplace can be costly.

According to one study, employees who perceive bias against them are:

  • nearly three times as likely to be disengaged at work
  • more than three times as likely to quit their jobs
  • 2.6 times as likely to withhold ideas as their peers

Employers risk losing profit in lost productivity and innovation, the cost of replacing unhappy employees, not to mention costly HR incidents.

So, what exactly is unconscious bias and what can you do to avoid it?

This guide explains what to look for and how to reduce biased behaviors.

Unconscious bias is the root of many systemic inequities in the workplace.

It’s important that we recognize our personal biases, take action to mitigate them, and actively serve as an ally to others in a work setting. Learn how in this free webinar from strategic HR consultant Catherine Mattice.

Watch the Webinar

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What is Unconscious Bias?

Sometimes called implicit bias, unconscious bias occurs when "our unconscious mind makes decisions, regardless of whether we have enough information or not," explains strategic HR consultant Catherine Mattice. "We are built to resolve ambiguity, and so our minds frequently jump to conclusions."

In a workplace setting, unconscious bias occurs when we don't know a lot about a person but our mind tries to tell us that we do. We want to fill in the gaps, so we insert information we've learned from past experiences and messaging we received growing up.

Unconscious bias can apply to anything, including:

  • race
  • personality
  • accent
  • religion
  • gender
  • education
  • appearance
  • fashion sense

Let's say your team has hired a new employee who is originally from Germany. Last year you managed an employee, also from Germany, who sexually harassed another employee. You might unconsciously act cold or rude towards the new employee because your brain associates their background with workplace incidents.

Unconscious bias isn't always negative, but it is always problematic.

For example, you need to hire a new employee and you come across an applicant who shares your alma mater. Because of your positive experiences at school, you assume this applicant is smart and capable, so you give them an interview.

While your bias towards the applicant helps them, you're also showing unconscious bias towards applicants who didn't go to the same university as you. Assuming something about a person before you know all the facts, especially in a workplace setting, can cause tension at best and a complaint, EEOC charge, or lawsuit at worst.

Types of Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias doesn't always present in the same way or come from the same place. Employees need to learn to recognize the many different types of bias in themselves, including:

  • Confirmation bias: interpreting new information as confirming your existing beliefs. Example: "This candidate is older and she has limited computer skills. I knew all older people were terrible at computers!"
  • Expectation bias: your expectations for a person influence your behavior, and possible theirs. Example: "This candidate is older and I don't think they'll be good at computers, so I won't even ask about their experience in that area."
  • Affinity bias: being biased in favor of someone because you share something with them (e.g. hometown, school, ethnicity, hobbies, interests, etc.). Example: "This candidate plays tennis in their spare time and so do I, so they must be a good person."
  • Conformity bias a.k.a. peer pressure: you act or think similarly to those around you (i.e. coworkers). Example: "I don't agree with my teammate's idea, but everyone else does, so I'll say I like it."
  • Halo effect and horns effect: Thinking highly of a person after learning something good about them (halo), or looking down on them after learning something negative about them (horns). Example: "This candidate graduated from an Ivy League university, so they must be right for the job."
  • Cognitive dissonance: when thoughts and behavior don't match, you try to make them match. Example: "Jim said this meeting was important, but now he's late for it. He is clearly unreliable."

RELATED: Disparate Impact & Treatment: The Definitive Guide

Unconscious Bias vs. Preference

As explained above, unconscious bias is the result of a lack of information. Our brains try to fill in the blanks to make sense of a person or situation. Our brains use any small similarity with a previous experience to fill in those blanks. You then make choices or assumptions based on this bias without even realizing it.

Bias is defined by the American Psychological Association as "an inclination or predisposition for or against something."

Preference, on the other hand, is "the act of choosing one alternative over others."

To put simply, your biases are internal feelings of like or dislike towards things. Your preferences are shown in your actions. So, you could have a bias in favor of something, but if you don't choose that thing over other options, it's not a preference.

Here's an example for a workplace setting: Clyde attended Penn State University. His alma mater's rival school is the Ohio State University. In college, he developed a bias against anyone who attended OSU. Years later, he's a hiring manager at his job and comes across a candidate who's an OSU alumnus.

His bias might tell him not to hire this person because they are a rival. However, if he gives them an interview anyway, he does not have a preference against OSU alumni. His internal feelings (bias) and his actions (preference) are separate.

Causes of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Bias doesn't just occur in toxic work environments full of blatant discrimination and harassment. Even if your organization is open and welcoming with a strong DEI program, unconscious bias can still pop up.

According to Zundel, "the less energy you have, the more you rely on instinct or autopilot."

In other words, when employees are burnt out, stressed or overwhelmed, they might let their unconscious bias take over when making decisions. They won't have the capacity to think things through, and might start taking mental shortcuts.

Risk factors of unconscious bias in the workplace include:

  • Employees who feel angry or disgusted, regardless of what they're upset about
  • Ambiguity
  • Obvious social categories or hierarchy amongst employees
  • Employees who are tired, disengaged or disinterested in their work
  • Decision-making situations that are rushed, pressured, or distracted
  • Lack of feedback and/or accountability when employees make decisions

As with more intense misconduct such as harassment, discrimination, and bullying, bias most often springs from feelings of fear, anger, fatigue, sadness, and uncertainty. To prevent unconscious bias from steering your employees' decisions, make their well-being and education top priorities.

RELATED: How Do the World's Most Ethical Companies Prevent Discrimination?

Ways to Reduce Unconscious Bias

Require Unconscious Bias Training

Nearly every organization requires employees to attend harassment and discrimination training. Everyone knows that these incidents happen and that we should try our best to prevent them. But what about biases that they don't realize exist?

Unconscious bias training helps employees recognize their biases, understand how they are formed, and how they can affect others in the workplace. Unfortunately, only 50 per cent of companies require this type of training, according to a study Case IQ conducted on LinkedIn.

When developing your training module, use plenty of examples to define and illustrate unconscious bias (such as those described earlier in this article). You can also get employees to take Implicit Association Tests to help them identify their unconscious biases.

Finally, include actionable steps employees can use to keep minimize their biases, such as:

  • Give every person an equal chance to speak in meetings
  • Gather as much information as possible before making a decision
  • Interact with employees from different ethnic groups, genders, and ages
  • Don't make assumptions
  • Act as an ally; speak up if you witness bias, harassment, discrimination or bullying in action

Engage Hesitant Employees

Do you have some employees who struggle with accepting their own unconscious biases?

First, explain "that unconscious bias is a normal brain function that helps take mental shortcuts to navigate a complex world, and that there is nothing . . . unnatural about it," says Stan Kimer, President of Total Engagement Consulting. "Training that shames and blames people immediately turns them off."

Then, help the employees think of a time that they may have been the target of another person's unconscious bias.  This helps foster empathy and reminds them "how [biased behavior] felt," says Kimer.

Finally, tie unconscious bias back to your business. Kimer suggest explaining "how unconscious bias, when not mitigated, can lead to errors in judgement and negatively impact business results." Understanding that their bias could negatively affect their job could get hesitant employees to take unconscious bias training seriously.

Don't Play Favorites

Unconscious bias can affect any procedure or process, from social interactions to hiring and promotions. To keep bias-driven decisions from taking over your workplace, have set protocols in place.

First, don't choose employees for promotions, projects and other opportunities based on who you have the strongest personal connection with. Instead, analyze each employee's credentials and choose based on their skill set and career goals.

In the same vein, don't discipline employees on a case-by-case basis. Apply the rules and consequences in your code of conduct consistently, regardless of the person's tenure, position, or any other factor.

Finally, don't favor some employees and leave others out. If you plan a meeting or social gathering, invite every team member, not just your buddies. Give equal praise for equal effort, as well as equal negative feedback. Offer equal support, openness, and emotional warmth toward all employees.

Prioritize Mental Health

To minimize unconscious bias in your organization, minimize the risk factors. Reducing the causes mentioned above will not only reduce bias, but also improve your company culture overall, making it a safer, happier workplace for every employee.

First, cut down on excessive competition. Employees should want to do their best, but pushing them to meet unreasonable targets or fight for promotions leads to a toxic work environment. In turn, employees will be so stressed and distracted, they won't make the most informed decisions possible.

When they aren't feeling at their best mentally, workers are more likely to work on gut instincts and assumptions. To prevent this, put employees' mental health first by:

  • Promoting a healthy work/life balance by encouraging time off and offering flexible work hours
  • Train managers to recognize employees who are struggling and how to help them
  • Including mental health treatments in your company's benefits plan
  • Compiling a list of mental health resources that all employees can access, such as crisis hotline numbers, local practitioners' contact information, and educational information on mental health symptoms and signs
  • Organizing stress-busting events, such as yoga, therapy dogs, or painting

RELATED: 6 Tips for Maintaining a Mentally Healthy Workplace

Rethink Your Recruiting and Hiring Tactics

"Recruitment and hiring play a critical role in recruiting diverse talent and often provide the first impression of a company’s culture. Simply placing the standard Equal Employment Opportunity diversity statement at the bottom of a job listing is not enough," explain Shamika Dalton, professor at the University of Florida and Michele Villagran, professor at San Jose State University.

To find candidates from a wide variety of backgrounds, they suggest looking beyond the typical job fairs and employee referrals. Instead, scope out professional associations and groups that represent diverse communities, such as Black Women in Science and Engineering or Muslim Urban Professionals.

In addition, word your job postings carefully. "Using extreme or masculine words or requirements that are unnecessarily steep or vague can detract diverse candidates by lowering the perception that they would belong in the organization," Dalton and Villagran say.

For example, using buzzwords and jargon like "guru" or "rockstar" can be confusing to applicants whose first language isn't English. Use a more common job title instead. Avoid aggressive language like "fast-paced" or "crush your tasks" that could turn off female candidates.

Encourage diversity during the hiring process by scripting interviews, say Dalton and Villagran. Come up with a set of questions you'll ask each candidate and stick to it to avoid discrimination and unconscious bias.

Small changes can make a big impact. Download this free cheat sheet to learn 10 bias interrupters you can work into your company's procedures to promote a fair workplace culture.

Implement a DEI Program

Finally, make all of these changes part of a larger diversity, equity and inclusion program in your organization.

An effective DEI program corrects for biased and discriminatory practices you might not even realize you have.

The first step? Analyzing your current policies and procedures. Consider if and how your organization:

  • measures and analyzes DEI
  • creates a welcoming environment for all employees
  • allocates budget to DEI initiatives, such as closing pay gaps and recruiting diverse candidates
  • follows laws and regulations related to DEI
  • conducts performance management and employee evaluations equitably
  • fosters a culture of inclusion
  • gets leaders on board with DEI initiatives

If you aren't currently doing any of these things (or your procedures could use an update), be sure to include them in your DEI strategy.

Next, determine your goals for the program. These should come from your ethical standards and core values, as well as your organization's mission. Start by asking, "why does my organization want to overcome unconscious bias?"

When creating your program, get employees involved. Send out a survey and form a working group of employees from different departments, levels, ethnicities, abilities, and genders to collaborate on goals and strategies. After your DEI program is finalized, train employees on your new protocols.

Not sure how to start planning your DEI strategy? Download our free eBook to create your program in just seven steps.

Unconscious bias can quickly escalate into harassment and discrimination if it isn't addressed. Making employees aware of their biases and teaching them how to minimize bias creates a more productive and positive work environment. These steps can save you from costly staff turnover, HR incidents, and even stifled innovation.

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