What is unconscious bias in the workplace?
14 November 2022 | 7 mins read
- Employee resources
If you’ve ever worked in an office, you’ve likely experienced unconscious bias. But what is unconscious bias in the workplace and how can we notice the signs?
Unconscious bias is when we make decisions based on our personal beliefs and preferences, rather than facts or logic. We all have biases, and they can impact our work lives in a number of ways.
For example, let’s say you’re a hiring manager and you’re looking at two equally qualified candidates for a job. One of the candidates is a woman and the other is a man. You may have an unconscious bias that leads you to believe that the man is more qualified for the job, simply because he is a man. This type of bias can result in women being passed over for promotions or jobs, and it can create a hostile work environment for those who do manage to get hired.
There are a number of different types of unconscious bias, and they can all have an impact on the workplace. In this post, we’ll go over some of the most common types of unconscious bias and how they can play out in the workplace.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias is a prejudice that we are not aware of. It can occur when we make judgments about people or situations based on our own experiences, beliefs and prejudices.
Believe it or not, everyone has unconscious bias. It’s a natural part of the human brain and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, when left unchecked, unconscious bias can lead to discriminatory practices in the workplace.
14 most common types of unconscious bias:
- Affinity bias
- Confirmation bias
- Attribution bias
- Conformity bias
- The halo effect
- The horns effect
- Contrast effect
- Gender bias
- Name bias
- Racial bias
- Anchor bias
- Authority bias
- Overconfidence bias
Related read: What is retaliation in the workplace?
14 types of unconscious bias in the workplace
The term “affinity bias” was first coined in the late 1970s by psychologists Richard E. Nisbett and Timothy DeCamp Wilson in their article “The Halo Effect: Evidence for Unconscious Alteration of Judgments“.
Affinity bias is our tendency to favor people who are similar to us. This could be in terms of race, age, gender, religion, or any other number of factors. We often see this in action when companies are hiring new employees. Studies have shown that people are more likely to hire someone who is similar to them in some way. This bias can also lead us to form closer bonds with people who are like us. We may share more information with them or be more likely to trust them.
While there is nothing wrong with forming friendships with people who are similar to us, it’s important to be aware of this bias so that we don’t let it influence our decisions in a negative way.
Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs. We are more likely to notice and remember information that supports what we already think.
This bias can lead us to make decisions that are not in our best interest. For example, if we believe that a certain stock is going to increase in value, we may only look for information that supports this belief.
We may ignore or discount information that contradicts our beliefs. This can lead to bad decisions, such as investing in a stock that actually decreases in value.
The halo effect
The halo effect refers to the positive attributes that we associate with people or things that we like. For example, if we think someone is attractive, we may also think they are friendly and intelligent. Essentially, our positive opinions of someone in one area influences our opinion of them in other areas.
This bias can lead us to make judgments about people that are not accurate. We may give someone a higher rating on a performance review because we think they are attractive, even if their work is not up to par.
The horns effect
The horns effect is the opposite of the halo effect. It refers to the negative attributes that we associate with people or things that we don’t like.
For example, if we think someone is rude, we may also think they are lazy and incompetent. This bias can lead us to make judgments about people that are not accurate. We may give someone a lower rating on a performance review because we think they are lazy, even if their work is actually up to par.
Related read: What is alienation in the workplace?
The contrast effect refers to our tendency to judge people or things in relation to other people or things. For example, if we meet two people, one who is tall and one who is short, we may think the tall person is taller than they actually are and the short person is shorter than they actually are.
This bias can lead us to make judgments about people that are not accurate. We may think a candidate is more or less qualified for a job than they actually are because of the other candidates we’ve interviewed.
Gender bias is our tendency to judge people based on their gender. This can be either positive or negative. For example, we may think women are more nurturing and compassionate than men, or we may think men are more aggressive and assertive than women.
This bias can lead us to make judgments about people that are not accurate. We may think a woman is not qualified for a job because we believe she is too emotional, or we may think a man is not qualified for a job because we believe he is too aggressive.
One of the most common biases in the workplace is ageism. Ageism is our tendency to judge people based on their age. For example, we may think older workers are not as tech savvy as younger workers, or we may think younger workers are not as experienced as older workers.
This bias can lead us to make judgments about people that are not accurate. We may think an older worker is not qualified for a job because we believe they are not familiar with new technology, or we may think a younger worker is not qualified for a job because we believe they lack experience.
Another common bias in the workplace is name bias. Name bias is our tendency to judge people based on their name. For example, we may think someone with a common name is not as intelligent as someone with an unusual name.
We may think a job candidate is not qualified for the job because their name is not familiar to us. In fact, studies show that people with common names are more likely to be hired than people with ethnic or “unusual” names. This bias can lead us to make judgments about people that are not accurate and can often times be discriminatory.
Related read: Is yelling in the workplace harassment?
Similar to the name bias, Racial bias is our tendency to judge people based on their race. For example, we may think someone is not qualified for a job because they are black or we may think someone is not qualified for a job because they are Asian.
Anchoring bias is a cognitive bias that describes the human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions.
For example, if we are considering two job candidates and one candidate has a degree from Harvard and the other candidate has a degree from a state school, we may be more likely to think the Harvard candidate is more qualified, even if the state school candidate has better qualifications.
Authority bias is exactly what it sounds like – our tendency to judge people based on their authority. For example, we may think a candidate is more qualified for a job if they have a degree from a prestigious university or if they have experience working for a well-known company. This bias may cause use to subconsciously judge people with perceived authority as better or more-qualified.
An overconfidence bias is when we are too confident in our own abilities. This can lead to the tendency for people to over-estimate their own qualifications for a job. Studies show that people tend to be more overconfident when they are applying for jobs that they are less qualified for. This bias can lead to people making poor decisions and can often times be detrimental in the workplace.
Unconscious bias vs microaggressions: What’s the difference?
Microaggressions are intentional or unintentional slights, insults, or put-downs that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target groups. They can be based on race, gender, age, religion, sexuality, or disability.
An example of microaggression would be a boss who consistently ignores an employee’s ideas in meetings but gives credit to other employees for the same ideas. This could also be a boss who gives an employee a demeaning nickname based on their race or gender.
Unconscious bias, on the other hand, is a type of implicit bias that we all have. It’s the result of our brain making snap judgments based on our past experiences and observations. We all have unconscious biases – they are a natural part of our brain’s function. We may not even be aware that we have unconscious biases. However, when these biases influence our decisions in the workplace, they can have a negative impact on our ability to create an inclusive and diverse environment.
An example of unconscious bias would be if we were to judge a job candidate based on their name. If we saw a resume with the name “John Smith” and another resume with the name “Jasmine Rodriguez,” we may be more likely to call John Smith for an interview because his name is more familiar to us. This is an example of unconscious bias at work.
Another example of unconscious bias would be a hiring manager who is looking to fill a position on their team. They may have an unconscious bias against hiring someone who is over the age of 40 because they believe that older workers are not as tech savvy as younger workers.
Both unconscious bias and microaggressions can have a negative impact in the workplace. Unconscious bias can lead us to make judgments about people that are not accurate, while microaggressions can create a hostile work environment.
Impact of bias in the workplace
While these biases may seem harmless, they can actually have a big impact on the workplace. Unconscious bias can lead to disparities in hiring, pay, and promotions. It can also impact the way we work with and communicate with our coworkers. If we are not aware of our own biases, we may make assumptions about others that are not accurate. These assumptions can then lead to poor decision making and can create an environment that is exclusive and not welcoming to all.
Bias can also have an impact on the way we give feedback. If we have a bias against someone, we may be more likely to give them negative feedback, even if they deserve positive feedback. This can then lead to a vicious cycle where the person receiving the negative feedback begins to believe that they are not good at their job, which can impact their performance.
It’s important to be aware of our own biases so that we can avoid making assumptions about others. When we are aware of our biases, we can work to create an inclusive environment in the workplace.