What is Unconscious Bias?

Employee behavior can often leave HR pros asking, “What were they thinking?” Well, according to science, perhaps they weren’t — at least not consciously.

An unconscious bias, also called an implicit bias, is an unconscious association about a person, thing, or group caused by our brain’s mental shortcuts.

Science shows that the way our brains are wired may cause us to unintentionally hurt others or act unfairly in ways that are unacceptable at work. Whether in personal interactions, such as encouraging colleagues to chip in or a farewell gift without considering financial circumstances, or in organizational decisions, like NASA’s lack of spacesuits in women’s sizes that forced a female astronaut to sit out of a historic spacewalk while a man took her place, unconscious biases continue to lurk and cause harm in workplaces everywhere.

That’s why it’s critical for HR leaders to understand how they and their colleagues, can recognize the impact of unconscious bias on inclusion and limit the effect of biased perspectives, beliefs, and assumptions to support a diverse, equitable, and inclusive work environment.

How to Recognize Unconscious Bias

Not all unconscious biases are bad. To help explain, consider that the human brain processes 11 million bits of information every second — our minds, however, can only handle 14 to 60 bits of that. This means most of the work our brains do is unconscious. In order for us to function, the brain creates mental shortcuts every day by seeking out patterns to group and categorize the information. Through this automatic cognitive process, every single one of us develops preferences — or biases.

The Effects of Unconscious Bias

Because cognitive biases operate unconsciously, they tend to be at the root of someone’s behavior and therefore challenging to identify — not only by individuals but by employers. But unconscious bias in the workplace can cause serious ramifications, leading to behaviors that, if left unnoticed or unaddressed, can contaminate organizations at every level — from recruitment and promotion outcomes to colleague, manager, and customer interactions.

As with any unconscious behavior, the first step towards reducing implicit bias at work is to increase awareness of it and teach your employees how to recognize their own (and others’) biases in different situations.

Unconscious Bias Examples in the Workplace

Part of the challenge with uncovering unconscious biases at work is that they manifest in many ways, often making them difficult to recognize. Nonetheless, cognitive bias in the workplace can have a powerful impact on the way your employees think, feel, and behave.

Here are just a few cognitive bias examples:

Affinity bias

Favoring those who have similar interests or backgrounds can lead to unconscious bias in recruitment. For example, a hiring manager prefers a job applicant who grew up in the same city.

Confirmation bias

The tendency to interpret and recall information that confirms preexisting beliefs and values. An example is overhearing one of your favorite colleagues mutter an inappropriate comment and thinking “there must be a misunderstanding” because it doesn’t align with your positive view of that person.

Halo effect

Allowing one quality to dictate an overall positive impression of someone or something. For instance, a recruiter notes a candidate attended a well-known, Ivy League school and assumes they’re more brilliant and successful than someone who attended a public state university.

How Can You Support Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Today’s Workplace?

This guidebook provides discussion resources and exercises to help you promote a culture of respect and inclusion in the modern workplace.

In collaborative environments, whether remote or in-person, it’s important for employees to recognize these biases can lead them to do or say something that’s disrespectful to others.

The Impact of Unconscious Bias on Inclusion

Unconscious biases can manifest in many unexpected ways to harm people of various identities. These sometimes can take the form of microaggressions (demeaning and disrespectful words, comments, or actions based on someone’s identity) and are one of the most common actions that can harm employees and their work environments.

Whether intentional or unintentional, microaggressions communicate to the recipient — and anyone who witnesses the event — they don’t belong or aren’t respected.

Here are 5 examples of unconscious bias in action that may surprise you:

1. Race bias

Making a statement like, “When I look at you, I don’t see color.” Comments like this remove the acknowledgment of a person’s skin color and invalidate their racial, ethnic, and cultural identity, which can be an important part of their lived experience.

2. Disability bias

Asking team members to contribute money for a cause, like a birthday lunch or retirement gift, which presumes everyone has the financial capability to contribute. Regardless of where an employee stands financially, this can make others feel pressured or uncomfortable.

3. Age bias

Assuming an older person who has years of experience is “overqualified” for a role, when they may be pursuing the position for a variety of reasons.

4. Unconscious gender bias

Repeatedly designating a female employee to take notes during team meetings, thereby limiting her ability to contribute, because a manager has a bias that administrative duties are better suited to a woman.

5. LGBTQ+ bias

Asking someone whether they’ll be spending the holiday with a partner of the opposite gender. Assuming a person is in an opposite-sex relationship implies those relationships are the “norm” and excludes people in same-sex or other types of relationships or those who aren’t in a relationship.

Teaching your employees to recognize and disrupt microaggressions helps advocate for a culture of inclusion, equity, and belonging at work.

5 Strategies to Combat Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Workplace bias can have both subtle and blatant impacts on an organization at all levels, from decision-making and day-to-day interactions to leadership styles and DEI efforts. HR leaders who focus their efforts on addressing unconscious biases can help reduce negative attitudes and behaviors in the workplace.

Here are a few strategies you can implement to help prevent unconscious bias:

  1. Help managers focus on practicing conscious awareness — individually and organizationally — to help identify bias in the workplace.
  2. Build affinity groups that can host workplace discussions to facilitate understanding of individuals’ unique perspectives and experiences at work.
  3. Deploy companywide unconscious bias training.
  4. Establish and encourage a “thought or process check” by all employees — especially leaders — to pause before moving forward.
  5. Implement objective evaluation criteria in any and all decision-making processes, especially when considering criteria for hiring, performance, opportunities for employees, and policies.

Building and leading a workforce with a diversity of identities, backgrounds, and perspectives takes intention and commitment. This includes cultivating a work environment of respect, inclusivity, and equity, where everyone feels they belong and can fully contribute.

As a leader, you have opportunities to influence that environment by teaching employees and managers how to address their unconscious biases, and alter their behaviors and monitor their progress.