12 Unconscious Bias Examples in the Workplace and How to Avoid Them
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Bias is everywhere. Whether innate or learned, we all have biases and are prone to developing new ones. Bias is so omnipresent that it can even creep into AI and neural networks.
You can take action to reduce bias and avoid it altogether when you’re aware of your biases. But what happens when we’re unaware, as with unconscious bias? This bias becomes particularly problematic in the workplace.
In this post, we’re sharing a list of the most common examples of unconscious bias and some tips on avoiding them in your team.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias is a set of beliefs and associations we have about different groups of people, which we’re unaware of or not in control of but affect our attitude and behavior toward those groups. Even though implicit bias can be harmless in some cases, it often includes different forms of discrimination.
The purpose of these assumptions we make about others is to speed up the processing of information we receive daily. We use these mental shortcuts based on our previous experiences and a specific situation’s social and cultural context.
Everyone is prone to unconscious bias, even people who don’t mean harm and speak up against different stereotypes. Or even people who belong to the same group of people they’re showing bias against.
For example, as Ph.D. Gleb Tsipursky explains in Psychology Today, “research shows that many black officers have an unconscious prejudice against other black people, perceiving them in a more negative light than white people when evaluating potential suspects.” Tsipursky notes that this happens due to internal subcultures within police departments more often than because of preexisting racist attitudes.
Why we must combat unconscious bias in the workplace
Teams must put in a conscious effort to reduce bias in the workplace for several reasons:
- To create a healthy company culture
- To nurture diversity in the organization, especially if the team is international
- To improve employee retention rates
- To avoid losing great talent due to bias or discrimination
- To ensure everyone is treated equally and fairly
Unconscious bias can affect all aspects of work, from hiring to deciding whether someone should get promoted or receive a raise.
All employees could be affected by unconscious bias in the workplace. Still, managers and leaders can create particularly unpleasant situations if they demonstrate unfair behavior due to implicit bias, even though it’s not ill-intended.
Creating unfair disadvantages for specific employees can result in low morale and, eventually, cause them to leave the company. A study by the Center for Talent Innovation found that employees who perceive bias in the workplace are less likely to share their solutions and ideas with others and more likely to leave the organization and speak about the company negatively on social media.
To foster a sense of belonging in your company and build a healthy company culture, you must make a conscious effort, especially if your team is global and includes employees from different backgrounds, cultures, religions, and more. This is why it’s critical to equip your team, not just managers but employees too, with strategies that will help them recognize unconscious bias and reduce it as much as possible.
In 2014, Google admitted that only 5% of its employees (close to 60,000 people at that moment) were Latin and African American. The company management decided to tackle the issue and improve diversity by organizing workshops, hands-on sessions, and webinars to educate their team members, especially recruiters and hiring managers, on unconscious bias effects and ways to avoid them.
What is your team
Types of unconscious bias and how to avoid them
This section looks at the 12 most common biases we may encounter in the work environment. With each type of bias, we’ve listed a few actions you can take to help reduce or eliminate it in your team or company.
Gender bias occurs when we unintentionally associate stereotypes with genders and make assumptions rather than evaluate the situation in front of us. For example, a recruiter may favor male candidates during the interview process because they assume women are the primary caregivers in the family and will need to take time off whenever their children are sick.
You might also be familiar with the gender pay gap, where employers pay female employees less than male coworkers for the same job. In 2020, the gap was around 16% in the US and 14% in the EU in 2019.
Working women are also more likely to:
- Decide not to ask for a raise
- Give up their job to take care of the children
- Scale back their hours
- Take unpaid leave
- Be skipped for a promotions
The gender bias towards men: fathers can rarely take more than a few days off to care for a newborn, and only a few countries, like Sweden, offer fathers equal parental leave.
There are several ways to fight gender bias in your workplace consciously:
- Introduce blind screening of applicant resumes by excluding their name and other data that may suggest their gender
- Set clear diversity goals for your organization when it comes to hiring to maintain a healthy balance
- Create a checklist to evaluate candidates, in which you’ll include gender-neutral criteria related to achievements, experience, and skills only
Name bias is when people base assumptions about a person on their name, and it is often associated with race or ethnicity.
For example, some people express positive bias toward white-sounding names and negative bias toward names that sound Latin or Afro-American.
After sending over 80,000 fake job applications to more than 100 companies, a recent study revealed that applicants with white-sounding names are 9-19% more likely to receive a callback than candidates with Asian or African names.
Fortunately, technological advances allow us to successfully avoid name bias in the hiring process. Many HR software solutions block or remove the candidates’ names (and other personal details) from the application form, so the recruiter is left with only information about their professional experience when deciding who is suitable for the job.
Ageism (age bias)
Ageism or age bias tends to discriminate against team members based on age. For example, older workers may not give a voice to younger coworkers, or managers may overlook older people in the company for promotions or additional responsibilities.
Age bias is quite common in the workplace. According to AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), almost two-thirds of workers who are 45 and older have experienced some form of age discrimination. From the survey respondents’ perspective, they didn’t get jobs or promotions, were laid off, and it took them longer to find another job because of their age.
You can avoid age bias in the following ways:
- Rethink your job ad and application process: eliminate discriminatory language or any age requirements for positions you’re hiring for, especially in the tech industry—many people over 50 are pretty tech-savvy. Also, don’t ask candidates for their birthdate in your application form
- Consciously give older candidates and coworkers opportunities if they have skills and experience matching your organization’s needs
- Foster mentorship programs in your company and provide more senior team members a chance to pass their expertise to younger coworkers and feel respected and valued for many years of service
The halo effect, identified by American psychologist Edward Thorndike over 100 years ago, is when we create an overall good impression of a person based on one positive trait they have. This type of bias proves that not all prejudice might seem negative initially, but putting people on a pedestal without good reason can be equally risky in the workplace.
For example, if we’re affected by this form of bias, we might overlook a person’s mistakes that endanger our business or harmful behavior that affects the rest of the team. It may also cause us to put too much trust in someone who hasn’t proven they deserve it.
The halo effect often goes hand in hand with similarity bias (also known as affinity bias), where recruiters or managers are likely to favor applicants or employees who share similar interests or personal characteristics.
Recruiters may often experience the halo effect with candidates from prestigious universities. The hiring manager can assume that such candidates are more qualified than someone who attended a community college, even if the latter applicant has more relevant experience and a proven track record of outstanding results.
To prevent being blindsided by the halo effect, try:
- Assessing a candidate or an employee after removing that one quality from the picture and/or comparing them with other applicants or workers with a similar skillset but without that one trait you favor
- Making sure several recruiters interview a candidate—an attribute that represents the “halo” for one interviewer might not have the same effect on another hiring manager
- Conduct interviews in multiple steps so you get to evaluate the candidate’s different hard and soft skills before making the final decision
The horn effect is the opposite of the halo effect. This bias is the tendency to form an overall negative opinion about a person because of one negative trait or bad experience. This one negative experience pushes the human brain to judge a person unfairly because it focuses on that single piece of information about them instead of looking at the bigger picture.
The horn effect, also coined by Thorndike, might appear during the recruitment process, where hiring managers pass over the candidates who have a trait they dislike and when choosing employees to promote and reward.
Sometimes, the Horn effect is so strong that a minor, irrelevant trait, such as a person’s accent or previous employer, can make or break the destiny of an applicant.
To avoid the horn effect in the workplace, you can:
- Check the candidate’s references to get some positive feedback on their performance in the previous company
- Consider possible reasons for your bias and identify what’s triggering your negative feelings towards the candidate or employee
- Ask other team members to weigh in with their opinion on whether you should hire the person or promote the employee
The contrast effect is a cognitive bias that occurs when people judge someone in comparison to another person instead of looking at them individually. Our judgment changes depending on the standards we use for evaluation, often leaving out specific contexts or traits of the person we’re evaluating.
For example, a team manager may evaluate their team’s performance and compare everyone to one top performer. While doing so, the manager might neglect that the top performer had more mentorship opportunities or that other team members had to take time off due to childbirth or illness, so they need more time to get back on track.
On the other hand, employees might feel like they’re exceeding expectations because they’re comparing themselves to someone who’s slacking.
Avoid the contrast effect in your hiring practices and team management by:
- Setting clear expectations for each role within your team and comparing your teammates’ results to those criteria only
- Regularly check in with your teammates so you know what is going on in their private lives and are aware of any events that may affect their performance at work
Attribution bias is the type of bias that occurs when we try to attribute a person’s actions to a reason we think is behind them. This bias is widespread when evaluating other people’s performance, making it present in workplaces.
In the workplace, attribution bias is reflected in attributing a worker’s actions to their character rather than specific circumstances. For example, suppose a coworker missed an important deadline. In that case, the attribution bias makes us think it’s because they’re disorganized or lazy rather than considering that the employee is a single parent whose child was sick the days before the deadline, for example.
Attribution bias may appear in the recruiting process, as well. Suppose recruiters go through a resume and see that an applicant had low grades at university. In that case, they may think the applicant doesn’t have the necessary skills to perform the job. However, the candidate may have neglected the grades because they were working while studying, so now they have lots of experience and a good skillset.
To avoid the attribution bias, you can:
- Ask applicants for work samples rather than the traditional resume (for example, if hiring a content writer, ask for their portfolio, not their university diploma)
- Consciously work around your bias and schedule interviews with the candidate regardless (you can ask them to share reasons behind a gap year, for example, if they feel comfortable doing so)
- Encourage trust and transparency in your company so workers feel comfortable informing you of any circumstances impacting their work
Beauty bias occurs when people treat individuals they consider attractive more favorably. This bias may also refer to having a more positive attitude and opinion of someone you think looks beautiful.
In the workplace, beauty bias may include subtypes such as weight bias, height bias, and similar prejudice based on physical appearance.
The negative effects of beauty bias can manifest in two ways: we might overestimate a person’s capabilities based on their attractiveness (as we believe they know more than they do). Or we might underestimate their knowledge and skills. A study showed applicants rated 7 out of 10 were twice as likely to get hired as those rated 3 out of 10.
Decisions based on this bias can negatively affect the workplace and the whole team.
Avoid beauty bias in your company by:
- Blocking the images of applicants when reviewing their resumes (HR software can help)
- Writing down clear criteria and desired answers to your interview questions that will help you evaluate the applicants neutrally
- Make important decisions (regarding promotions or performance reviews, for example) together with your team (other recruiters or team managers) to ensure an unbiased outcome
Conformity bias refers to the tendency to adopt the opinion of people around us: family members, coworkers, and friends. Our attitudes and behaviors become similar to those expressed by the people from the group we belong to. In the workplace, this bias is commonly referred to as peer pressure.
There are several reasons why we give up on our opinions and let others affect our decision-making. Still, the most common cause of conformity bias is that we want to be liked and accepted by our group.
The unconscious conformity bias may appear in team meetings when team members are asked to express their opinions about an idea or evaluate a process.
To avoid conformity bias in your company, you can:
- Encourage team members to express their point of view even when they disagree with most of their coworkers, making sure they don’t face negative consequences of speaking up
- Conduct anonymous surveys, as people will be more likely to share their honest opinion
- Make sure you have 1:1 meetings with every team member so they have a safe space to express any disagreements they may have with the group
- Form a DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging) team to work on building a sense of belonging and appreciation among your employees so everyone can feel included and valued
Authority bias can happen when we respect a person’s authority, which makes us believe they can’t make a mistake. It can also refer to accepting ideas because they come from an authority figure within a company. Authority bias is particularly common when we don’t know enough about a subject, so we rely entirely on the person who does.
People tend to follow leaders without questioning their decisions, even if they’re not completely comfortable with their actions. Although following the instructions from a manager or team leader with years of experience might seem like a good idea, a lack of critical thinking can prevent your growth and independence in the workplace.
Stanley Milgram’s experiment, one of the most famous yet controversial psychological studies, demonstrates the effects of authority bias.
The professor showed how people obey authority even when acting against their conscience.
Authority bias in the workplace can be prevented by:
- Fostering healthy communication without putting the main focus on company hierarchy while encouraging everyone to share their ideas and concerns openly
- Encouraging team members to ask questions and do their research about a topic before a new idea is accepted
Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to search for evidence to back up our opinions (and prejudice) and use that information to confirm our beliefs. This bias threatens our critical thinking because we’re prone to overlook the data proving the opposite of what we believe.
For example, suppose we’ve made a mistake at work. In that case, we’ll seek instances in which similar mistakes didn’t have enormous consequences to validate our point that the error wasn’t so bad. This example shows that confirmation bias can harm a workplace, especially if an employee keeps pursuing an idea that objectively won’t contribute to the business or might even waste valuable resources.
A hiring manager might fall into confirmation bias when interviewing potential new hires. For example, suppose they believe everyone attending an Ivy League university is overconfident and arrogant. In that case, they might unconsciously seek signs of overconfidence in the candidate’s responses to interview questions.
You can avoid confirmation bias in the workplace by:
- Encouraging your employees to thoroughly research any new idea and present different angles and points of view to their managers
- Creating a checklist with green and red flags when interviewing applicants to make sure you don’t interpret specific behaviors or responses incorrectly
- Compiling a list of interview questions that you’ll stick to if you notice you’re looking for signs to confirm your bias
Anchor bias turns the first piece of information we receive about a person or situation into the primary driver of our future decisions—an anchor for our opinions and actions. This type of bias is also prevalent in workplaces.
If we hear a negative comment about someone before meeting them, we’ll be more likely to form a negative opinion about them. For example, if a candidate is late for the interview, we might hold onto that fact while interviewing them, which can affect our decision to proceed with this candidate.
Anchor bias narrows our perspective and doesn’t let us “unsee” a specific characteristic of a candidate. The bias works in the opposite direction, too. If someone tells us a positive piece of information about an employee before we meet them, we might overlook that they lack skills in specific areas.
Anchored ideas are powerful, but you can try to avoid anchor bias in the workplace by:
- Writing down all pros and cons of a situation or an employee: Weighing up someone’s strengths and weaknesses will help you move past that first piece of information that affected your opinion
- Leaving out the anchoring piece of information from your decision-making process and thinking about what you would likely do if you didn’t have the anchor
- Provide unconscious bias training for your team so they can learn more strategies for combating bias in the workplace
Strengthen your team with Deel
Raising awareness about different types of biases in a work setting is the first step toward overcoming them.
Education on this topic will help your team understand how personal biases affect their decisions. The more they’re aware of those biases, the more they’ll be able to address and prevent them. That inevitably leads to an increased sense of belonging in your organization, better hiring practices, more diverse teams, and healthier company culture.
You can start creating a positive workplace today with Deel Engage. Our suite of seamless plugins and integrations helps remote teams build a stronger company culture, increase team collaboration, and reduce burnout.
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