What is unconscious bias and why does it matter in the workplace?

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Most people say they would never judge a person by how they look, their gender, race, sexual orientation, religion or age. But according to social psychologists at the University of Washington and Yale, 90-95% of people judge people unconsciously. This is known as unconscious bias.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias are thoughts or feelings we’re not directly aware of, that influence our judgement. They are the attitudes and stereotypes that affect our views, our actions, and our decision-making ability, which we’ve unconsciously created from our own background and experiences. It happens automatically, and is triggered by our brain making quick judgements and opinions of people and situations.

Why do we have unconscious bias?

Everyone has biases, whether we’re aware of them or not. It’s a fundamental aspect of being human. Scientists believe that these quick judgements and decisions can help us navigate the world without being overwhelmed, because the unconscious mind can process more information than our conscious minds. However, the downside of this is that prejudice occurs during important decisions such as recruitment, healthcare and criminal justice which can disadvantage people.

Why does unconscious bias matter in the workplace?

When unconscious bias is present in the workplace it can drive negative impact in the following ways:

  • talented people are left out of your workforce, or not allowed equal opportunity for development and career progression
  • diverse voices aren’t heard in meetings and decisions can be impaired
  • culture is not genuinely demonstrating inclusive workplace principles
  • employees are not able to fully contribute to your organisation
  • creativity and productivity of your team or organisation may be compromised.

Common types of bias at work

Introductions and first impressions

Foundations for first impressions come from our own experiences and sense of the world — what’s familiar to us. Our reactions to someone we don’t know may be positive, negative, or neutral depending on what’s visible or audible about them; depending on their race, perceived sexual orientation, accent or a number of other characteristics.

First impressions are powerful. We need to be aware of the impact that has on the assessment you have when you first meet them.

Stereotypes and performance bias

Performance bias occurs when people who are part of dominant groups, such as being white or male, are judged by their expected potential, while those who are part of less dominant groups such as people of colour or women are judged by their proven accomplishments.

Heidi vs Howard: Gender bias in success and likeability

In 2003 Frank Flinn, a Columbia Business School Professor and NYU Cameron Anderson ran an experiment to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace.

They started with a Harvard Business School case study about a real-life entrepreneur named Heidi Rosin. The case described how Heidi became a venture capitalist using her outgoing personality, and vast personal and professional network, that included many of the most powerful business leaders in the technology sector.

They gave the case study to two classes of students. One class read Heidi’s story and the other class read the same story but with one difference, they changed the name from Heidi to Howard. Then, they polled the students.

Students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent, which made sense because their accomplishments were identical. Yet while students respected Heidi and Howard, Howard came across a more “appealing colleague” Heidi, on the other hand was seen as “selfish” and not the type of person you want to hire or work for.

The same data, with a single difference: Gender, created vastly different impressions. This experiment supports what research already has clearly shown which is that success and likeability are positively correlated for men, and negatively correlated for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less. 

Women are expected to be nurturing and care-taking, while men are expected to be assertive and action-oriented. Having to produce results and be liked makes it harder for women to get hired and promoted, negotiate on their own behalf, and exhibit leadership.

What can you do in your team, or at work?

  1. Become mindful of your own unconscious bias and reflect on it.
  2. Take the Harvard Implicit Assessment Test to see what your unconscious biases are.
  3. Call out unconscious bias when you see it. If we can create an environment where we recognise bias, we can improve together.
  4. Standardise processes like hiring by building a grading criteria, asking the same questions to candidates and setting the same tests.
  5. During the hiring process, get managers to speak last. A manager’s perspective can influence a team’s input. See what more ideas can arise, if a manager listens and speaks last.

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