What is Unconscious Bias?

by | Oct 23, 2017 | Companies

Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that we form outside our conscious awareness. Unconscious bias happens outside of our control, and is the way our brains categorise and order information from our social world. Whether we realize it or not, unconscious bias thrives in every part of our society.

We all bring unconscious biases into the workplace. These deeply subconscious attitudes span race, gender, appearance, age, wealth and much more, and when left unchecked, these hidden biases can negatively impact many areas of a business.

There are more than 150 identified types of unconscious biases, according to a report written by Horace McCormick, of the Kenan-Flagler Business School. Here are some common examples often present in the workplace:-

  • Affinity or Similarity Bias: otherwise known as the ‘mini-me’ phenomena. This is where we are more inclined to favourably treat someone because of their likeness or similarity to ourselves. Conversely we can also look for the Outgroup Bias: where we perceive people who are different from us more negatively.
  • Beauty Bias: where employees are recruited because of their physical appearance, and are considered highly attractive and highly suitable, regardless of their skills and qualities.
  • Halo Effect: letting someone’s great performance in one area influence our overall perception of that individual. (Jim is not a people person, but he’s a great engineer and can solve problems; we should make him team leader.) The Horns Effect is the opposite of this.
  • Perception Bias: a tendency to categorize people based on stereotypes, such as thinking that a slim person must be energetic, or a blond woman is less intelligent.
  • Status Bias: where we make judgements about peoples’ ability, and we treat them differently based on how significant we perceive them to be.
  • Truth/Confirmation Bias: when we constantly look for ways to ‘back up’ our biases, i.e. if a person is overweight we believe they must be lazy and therefore look for instances of when they are not being productive. Confirmation bias involves the seeking and finding of evidence that confirms our beliefs and ignoring evidence that does not.

Unconscious bias like this, in the workplace, can result in the same negative consequences as conscious bias and discrimination. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, if unconscious bias is rampant in a workplace, it can result in discriminatory treatment or practices, a lack of workforce diversity and a negative business culture.

At a time when diversity and inclusion is widely understood to improve organisational productivity, profitability and overall business performance, organisations cannot afford to leave unconsious biases unchecked. Leaders should be taking the time to assess the prevalence and impact of unconscious bias in the workplace and to put measure in place to overcome it.

There are 4 main steps that organisational leaders can take to combat unconscious bias:

  • Raise awareness of unconscious biases and the implications it can present.
  • Establish systems, processes and criteria for hiring, compensation, development and promotion of employees that counter unconscious bias effects.
  • Provide tools and training for leaders and employees to reflect on their implicit attitudes and underlying biases.
  • Reward best practices of leaders who diminish unconscious biases and promote diversity and inclusion.

Like most organisational changes, the most effective measures start at the top. C-suite executives who are are genuinely committed to overcoming unconscious bias and building a more diverse and inclusive workplace, should openly and honestly demonstrate and promote self-awareness, and invite and encourage their executive teams to do the same.

Contact us today to find out how Inclusive People Solutions can help you combat unconscious bias in your workplace.