Imagine you’ve taken your seat on a plane when the pilot comes out of the cockpit to greet passengers. Now, imagine you’ve landed and are now eating your first meal at a local restaurant beside a couple celebrating their anniversary. In the first scene, what did the pilot look like: Was he male? Female? In your mental image of the second, was the couple older? Younger?
How your mind fills in the blanks—that is, defaults to certain “knowns” where none had been provided—describes unconscious bias. These scenarios, abbreviated from those shared by author and CEO Valerie Alexander in her TEDx Talk, demonstrate how unconscious bias can be.
While having unconscious biases isn’t explicitly harmful, they can negatively influence outcomes when applied in certain situations. Unconscious bias in the workplace, for example, can wreak havoc on a company’s productivity, reputation, and profitability.
In this article, learn how to eradicate unconscious bias with 22 examples of how it shows up in the workplace and how to confront it.
- 60% of employees believe their workplace is biased.
- 21% of adults over 50 experience discrimination after turning 40.
- Name bias is why some candidates have a 2.1% less chance of a call-back.
- Only 29% of employees believe their evaluative feedback is fair or accurate.
- Companies that are diverse and inclusive are 70% more likely to grow.
What Is Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious bias, also called implicit bias or affinity bias, occurs when a person’s evaluation of another based on their own belief system influences their perception of them. Unlike explicit bias, an expressed, conscious belief, unconscious bias is learned and develops over time, usually unbeknownst to the host. Without completing bias training or an implicit association test, a person may never know they have unconscious biases.
As The Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion describes, “Unconscious biases are simply our unintended people preferences; they are formed by our socialization, our personal experiences, and the representations of different groups in the media.” A 2019 survey by Deloitte shares that more than 60% of respondents believe their workplace is biased.
Someone may have an explicit, conscious belief and a conflicting unconscious bias. For example, a person may outwardly express support or favor for a particular social group while subconsciously preferring or defaulting toward another.
How Does Unconscious Bias Develop?
Like anything within our subconscious, unconscious biases develop over time through our learned experiences. Everything from the interactions we have and what’s portrayed in the media to the different negative experiences we’re exposed to shapes our beliefs about the world on an unconscious level.
As Dr. Mahzarin Banaji shares in a podcast with the American Psychological Association, “So learning is what happens . . . what we mean here by learning is something that happens extremely fast, quite early in life, and then progresses. And that comes not from just the social environment but by the structure and the architecture of our minds. The way our brain got built over a period of evolutionary history.”
Fortunately, with careful intention, unconscious biases can be reverse-engineered. According to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, “Our brains are incredibly complex, and the implicit associations that we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of debiasing techniques.”
22 Unconscious Biases to Watch Out for at Work
“‘Me? Biased?’ Unconscious bias is like jealousy: nobody likes to admit it, and often we’re unaware of it.”Thais compoint
1. Age Bias (Ageism)
A 2022 study by AARP found that 21% of adults over 50 reported experiencing age discrimination since turning 40. This is an example of age bias or ageism. When someone isn’t considered for a promotion because they are either “too young” or “too old” or are mistreated due to perceived maturity, that’s demonstrating an unconscious bias toward their age.
How to confront ageism bias:
- Avoid making assumptions about someone’s knowledge or skills based on their age.
- Provide equal opportunities for everyone of all ages to learn, grow, and contribute.
- Encourage cross-cultural communication by pairing senior team members with younger team members.
2. Beauty Bias (Lookism)
Beauty bias, also recently referred to as “lookism,” describes when someone is favored seemingly because they are perceived as attractive. It’s an unconscious bias based on physical appearance. A study by Harvard Library even confirmed that workers who are considered attractive by their employers tend to earn higher salaries than their “less-attractive” counterparts.
How to confront beauty bias:
- Avoid using video when interviewing or working with others remotely.
- Ignore an applicant’s resume photo and focus only on their qualifications.
- Practice providing equal opportunities for everyone, of all appearances, to learn, grow, and contribute.
3. Confirmation Bias
When we feel strongly about something or hold a deep belief, it’s natural to seek out people and things that align with our thoughts. Ignoring or dismissing anything that goes against what we feel is an example of confirmation bias. This unconscious bias favors only the things that “confirm” one’s beliefs.
How to confront confirmation bias:
- When a new project or task arises, include a mix of people, skills, and perspectives to work on it.
- When conducting an interview or training, lean on standardized questions to keep you from diverting to validate a belief.
- Invite people of varying opinions and beliefs to join in on your conversations.
4. Gender Bias (Sexism)
As the name implies, gender bias is when someone makes an unconscious evaluation of another person based on their gender. Also known as sexism, gender bias is prevalent in the workforce, with two-thirds of women thinking they don’t have equal job opportunities. An example of gender bias would be if an interviewer with a preference for female candidates dismissed the application of a male candidate.
How to confront gender bias:
- Before interviewing candidates, establish a list of standards and judge candidates based only on those.
- Establish gender diversity and inclusion goals to ensure a balance in team members in the company, departments, and projects.
5. The Halo Effect
A 1977 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology confirmed an interesting theory. By studying the responses of 118 students, researchers discovered “the halo effect,” a bias coined in 1920 by psychologist Edward Thorndike. The halo effect is when a person judges another positively in all aspects based on their impression of a single trait. For example, a hiring manager who sees that a candidate previously worked at an impressive company might assume they’re a great fit. This would be the work of the halo effect.
How to confront the halo effect:
- Make a list of standards to hire, fire, and promote.
- Ensure all criteria are met, not just one.
- When interviewing, examine candidates’ qualifications as “culture adds” and not necessarily “culture fits.”
6. Horns Effect
Opposite to the halo effect, the horns effect is when a person learns of one negative trait and evaluates the whole person negatively as a result. When a manager disagrees with a team member and now has a negative view of them, this would be an example of the horns effect. Since the horns effect is a very subtle unconscious bias example, it’s important to take extra care to avoid succumbing to this mindset. The horns effect, if not confronted, can break down trust, collaboration, and productivity over time.
How to confront the horns effect:
- Examine your negative impressions of others: Are they valid? Accurate?
- Challenge negative impressions with evidence: Is there anything else that confirms your impression? Or opposes it?
- Get others’ perspectives on the person. Do they see what you see?
7. Affinity Bias
When someone shares a similar interest, background, or belief, we may naturally gravitate toward them or tend to favor them. This pull, however, is an example of affinity bias. While affinity bias may be advantageous in social settings, it can lead to negative consequences in the workplace. A poor corporate culture can develop if team members are promoted because of their similarities with their manager or if dissimilar leaders are dismissed.
How to confront affinity bias:
- Ensure that all team-building decisions are based on a diverse and inclusive set of standards.
- When interviewing, have other team members or managers interview candidates to get multiple perspectives.
8. Name Bias
As the name suggests, this bias refers to discrimination toward someone based on their name. A 2022 study published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics found that candidates with “Black names” had a 2.1% less chance of receiving an interview call-back than those with “distinctively White names.” This type of bias, if not eradicated, will have clear negative consequences on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
How to confront name bias:
- When accepting applications, use software that automatically conceals personal details.
- Be self-aware of your biases based on a person’s name.
- Take a moment to reflect and realize you know nothing about someone based solely on their name.
9. Conformity Bias
Also known as “groupthink,” conformity bias occurs when one’s personal opinions or behaviors mold to match that of others. In the workplace, this can occur as team members try to appear agreeable and fit in with a professional environment. Conformity bias may not seem inherently dangerous, but conforming to the opinions of others reduces the opportunity for creativity and growth, and may even promote unethical behaviors.
As the McCombs School of Business quotes psychologist Dan Ariely, “Cheating is contagious. When we see others succeed by cheating, it makes us more likely to cheat as well.”
How to confront conformity bias:
- When multiple team members are interviewing, have them submit their opinions separately and privately; avoid the temptation to discuss openly.
- Conduct anonymous team surveys to collect unbiased information.
10. Anchor Bias
When a singular trait or piece of information is being used to compare against all other options, that is an example of anchor bias. This can often occur in interviewing or promoting, in which a manager relies on one fact—salary, for example—by which to base their decisions. Without confronting this unconscious bias, decisions can be made in a vacuum that might lead to restrictive or limited outcomes later on.
How to confront anchor bias:
- Lean on others to brainstorm possibilities.
- Explore all strengths and weaknesses.
- Practice open communication to reveal all opinions and perspectives.
11. Status Quo Bias
First studied by researchers in 1988, status quo bias is an aversion to anything that challenges the status quo. Fear of change, risk, and failure can all lead a person to harbor a bias for the status quo. A team member who opposes a new procedure or direction may demonstrate status quo bias to maintain their feeling of security. The problem with status quo bias in the workplace is that it stunts a company’s ability to experiment with new ideas.
How to confront status quo bias:
- Use pros and cons lists to weigh options and changes.
- Think of things from a pragmatic perspective, rather than an emotional one.
- Learn how to recognize status quo bias in yourself and others; probe to find the root of the hesitation.
12. Contrast Effect
When a judgment about something—an event, a result, or a person—is determined by how it compares to others of similar standards, this is known as the contrast effect. An example of this might be when a team member joins a new company from a perceived toxic one. The new company might be average, but because it’s being compared to the toxic one, it’s viewed with an exaggerated positive lens. The contrast effect may not be so negative in this instance, but it can have negative ramifications when hiring, firing, and promoting.
How to confront contrast effect:
- Rather than comparing something to one thing, compare it to several things.
- Practice explaining how you arrived at your judgment; simply talking it through can help reveal this bias.
13. Nonverbal Bias
This unconscious bias example happens when nonverbal cues, like body language and facial expressions, affect a person’s opinion of another. This bias may be one of the most challenging to spot, but it can happen subtly in several ways. If you’re interviewing someone who gives you a weak handshake, for example, you may unconsciously form a negative impression of them, even if everything else is positive.
How to confront nonverbal bias:
- Remind yourself and others that nonverbal cues can be nervous responses.
- When working with team members, focus on their skills and not their physical mannerisms.
- Practice keeping an open mind toward employees.
14. Authority Bias
Prioritizing trust and attention toward something from a position of authority is an example of demonstrating authority bias. In the workplace, this might look like team members following the instructions of their leadership regardless of personal opinion, ethics, or information. While following authorities is generally a good idea, it’s important to know when to think critically and speak up.
How to confront authority bias:
- Facilitate and advocate for a culture of openness and idea-sharing.
- Speak up and encourage others to do so.
- Practice accepting and listening to all ideas, regardless of authority status.
15. Attribution Bias
If you’ve ever used a prior interaction or experience with someone to draw conclusions about them, that’s attribution bias. Without knowing the complete picture of a person’s background, we may compare what we do know against what we’ve learned from similar encounters and apply those attributions to them. In the workplace, this can lead to forming harmful assumptions, causing poor work culture.
How to confront attribution bias:
- Practice asking more questions to avoid drawing conclusions.
- Allow team members and job candidates to speak fully and freely so that nothing is missed or misinterpreted.
- Leave negative attributions out by practicing empathy and compassion.
16. Height Bias
Height bias describes someone who judges another based on their height. This may seem like an unlikely workplace bias, but a 2020 study by Chinese researchers confirmed a link between height and earnings. Evidently, taller people have higher salaries, and the reason behind this insight is even more compelling. According to the study, “the observed height may act as a signal of beneficial circumstances for developing higher cognitive/non-cognitive skills.” In other words, height is associated with perceived intellect and skill.
How to confront height bias:
- Conduct blind interviews to avoid making judgments on physical appearance.
- Learn to recognize when you’re judging based on height and correct your behavior.
17. Overconfidence Bias
When others see that you are confident in your decisions and abilities, they will follow. No one wants to work with someone who is perpetually uncertain. However, when someone believes they are superior in ways than the evidence suggests, that is overconfidence bias. Essentially, it results from false or exaggerated assessments of one’s abilities. A team member who volunteers to head up a project with no prior experience may be demonstrating overconfidence bias, for example.
How to confront overconfidence bias:
- Lean on your team or a mentor for feedback before making decisions.
- Assess all possible outcomes before taking on a job or task.
- Foster a diverse team so varying confidence levels remain balanced.
18. Perception Bias
When someone is evaluated based on the perceptions one has about the social group they belong to, that is perception bias. Stereotypes and assumptions about values, behavior, and skills are often applied unconsciously depending on a person’s gender, appearance, and age. A person who perceives that older workers are slow may unconsciously demonstrate a bias against them.
How to confront perception bias:
- Examine your thoughts and beliefs about certain social groups and challenge them.
- Make note of each time you use the word “always” or “all” about a social group.
19. Illusory Correlation
When two unrelated factors are linked together to form a judgment, that is an example of illusory correlation. An example of unconscious bias would be if a manager determines that a team member would excel in a promoted role because they dress professionally. In this case, how someone dresses has no association with performance or skill, yet, someone with an illusory correlation bias would connect these variables together.
How to confront illusory correlation bias:
- Become honest about the reasons or factors that lead you to make judgments.
- Dispel false illusions by becoming educated on the things you don’t know.
- Practice considering all possibilities, even ones that challenge your bias, before drawing a conclusion.
20. Affect Heuristic
If you’ve ever made a split decision based on how a person or event made you feel, that’s an example of displaying affect heuristic. Grounded in our emotional perceptions, affect heuristic bias leads us to make quick decisions, even though they may be inaccurate or unfair. A manager who was planning on giving an employee a raise but chooses not to because the employee made an off-hand comment would have an affect heuristic bias.
How to confront affect heuristic bias:
- Learn skills for practicing greater emotional intelligence in the workplace.
- Practice reflecting on experiences and interactions after they occur.
- Recognize when decisions are being made based on emotion and not reason.
21. Recency Bias
When a greater value is placed on recent events or experiences over past ones, that is recency bias. Often, a person can demonstrate recency bias because recent events are easier to remember and, therefore, easier to work with. An example of recency bias might be an interviewer who favors candidates they spoke with later in the day over those from earlier. Having recency bias places obvious limitations on possibilities, information, and a company’s bandwidth for success.
How to confront recency bias:
- Strengthen your memory recall skills with mental exercises.
- Take detailed notes at each step as you progress through a large project.
- Allow yourself mental breaks and time to reflect when managing large workloads.
22. Idiosyncratic Rater Bias
This form of unconscious bias influences how we judge another’s performance in a particular area. Essentially, idiosyncratic rater bias describes a person who has a certain skill and evaluates performance more critically in that skill based on their own criteria of success. A person who is highly skilled with reporting, for example, will assess the reports from others more harshly. For any other area where the person possesses less skill, however, the person will be more forgiving on the performance. Idiosyncratic rater bias is a form of bias that often appears during employee evaluations and performance reviews.
How to confront idiosyncratic rater bias:
- When conducting evaluations, do so in a multi-tiered manner. Have evaluations of an employee in the forms of self, managerial, and peer evaluations. This will help form a full, unbiased picture of performance.
- Establish particular standards for giving feedback and adhere only to those.
- Learn to recognize where you may harbor idiosyncratic rater bias.
Long-Term Business Benefits of Defeating Bias
“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.”malcolm forbes
Beating unconscious biases has both short- and long-term benefits for a company. Of course, it can lead to fairer performance reviews and better hiring practices. Over time, however, it can also have a major impact on a company’s direction and profitability.
Here are some of the biggest long-term benefits of having a bias-free workplace:
- Increased Profitability: A recent report by McKinsey & Company shared that gender and ethnic diversity within a company strongly correlated with its profitability potential.
- Increased Expansion: Findings by GrowthForce share that companies with good diversity and inclusion policies are 70% more likely to expand into new markets.
- Increased Innovation: A study by Boston Consulting Group found a 19% increase in innovation (and revenue) in companies with diverse management teams.
Overcoming Unconscious Bias for Good
“If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.”Adam Grant
Unconscious bias can be a sneaky nemesis. If not carefully examined, it can wreak havoc on your personal and professional life without you even knowing it. The good news is that unconscious bias can be defeated. By becoming conscious of thought patterns you may have been engaging in unconsciously, you can begin to work toward arriving at conclusions more fairly.
Ways to beat unconscious bias today:
- Take an IAT (Implicit Association Test) to reveal unconscious biases.
- Facilitate programs for bias training for yourself and employees.
- Read Blindspot by Mahzarin R. Banaji.
- Pursue activities and tools that increase self-awareness.
For more information on creating a diverse and inclusive work environment, read “Inclusive Leadership: Creating a Workplace for Everybody.”
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