Types of unconscious bias in the workplace

Published on December 23rd, 2021

Biases, whether conscious or unconscious, are assumptions or judgments we make about someone, or something based on our prior experience, thought patterns, or interpretations. When we talk about conscious bias, it is an active and calculated choice to act in a certain way. We are completely aware of the motivation behind the decision or action at that time. On the other hand, unconscious bias, sometimes called implicit bias, is a decision to think or act in a certain way that is made, as its name implies, unconsciously. The decision is based influences or evidence from dangerous societal stereotypes that almost always have a negative connotation.   

We might think we are immune to these biases, that we don’t possess any and that they don’t affect us. To prove us wrong and to conduct research on the topic, the team of scientists from Harvard behind the non-profit organization Project Implicit, created the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT measures our attitudes and beliefs, and you wouldn’t believe how many biases lie in all of us.  

Both conscious and unconscious bias pose serious problems in the workplace, from macro-aggression to unintended harassment. Changing the behavior and values of people acting according to them is extremely important. Combating unconscious bias creates a more ethical and respectful workplace, and in that setting, employees feel motivated to come to work, which leads to better performance. 

We will go through the most common types of unconscious bias in the workplace: 

Conformity bias

This type of bias is related to peer pressure. It occurs when someone’s views are influenced by those around them. Most of the time the person being swayed is only seeking acceptance from the group. 

Conformity bias occurs in the recruitment process most often. If most people think one way about a certain candidate, one person who thinks differently will slowly start to align their views to the groups.  

Alfred was interviewing for a senior sales role at a multinational engineering company. Immediately after the interview, the panel met up to discuss their immediate thoughts and impressions about him. Sheila, one of the interviewers, is Head of Sales. She didn’t like Alfred at all, saying that his answers seemed hesitant and inconsistent. Even though Carl thought Alfred had showed enough competence, motivation and talent for the position offered, he found himself dismissing Alfred and agreeing with Sheila.  The other panel member, Nadia was reluctant to challenge the other two and agreed. We don’t know if Alfred was a good candidate or not, but he was not evaluated fairly as neither Carl nor Sheila expressed their views openly, deferring to the senior person in the room. 

Affinity bias

Affinity bias leads people to form deeper connections with others that share, either real or perceived connection. Going to the same university, a shared interest in golf or tennis, a common background are likely to create favorable connections that override other perspectives or even evidence.  

Attribution bias

Attribution bias is a type of cognitive bias that refers to the mistakes people make when evaluating or trying to find reasons behind theirs or others’ behavior. Basically, it is adding a motivation or a reason that does or doesn’t exist.  

Dima is often late to work.  You point out to your colleagues how lazy he is, joking that he must have a really busy social life that occasionally allows him to get a little bit of work done!  You continue to label him as lazy, despite his performance, efficiency and productivity and start to treat him based on the initial misconception. Your opinion impacts how others treat Dima, and in his annual appraisal he is scored down, with a comment that he lacks motivation and focus on work. 

Confirmation Bias 

Confirmation bias is the ignoring or dismissal of evidence that contradicts what you consider to be true. 

People with this type of bias search for evidence that back up their opinions, instead of objectively looking at all the information. People often overlook or discard crucial information, and only focus on factors that fit their view rejecting evidence that contradicts what they already believe.  

Confirmation bias is the most challenging bias to overcome as it usually as an emotional or very subjective origin. 

Halo and Horns effect  

Halo effect is a situation where one quality or accomplishment takes precedence over any negative attributes the person may exhibit. For example, a fact that a worker went to an exceptional college it may distract from their lack of practical skill. 

Horn’s effect is the exact opposite. Rather than acknowledging and focusing on any positive attributes, you acknowledge and focus on a single negative characteristic. This one fact or action colors all other interactions and accomplishments the person makes.  

The danger of bias in the workplace and when hiring

Bias in the workplace is a real thing and it manifests in many other cases than those highlighted above. For example, a study done by American Psychological Association shows that taller people tend to be more paid, or another one where they concluded that both men and women prefer male employees.  

One of the biggest impacts of biased hiring practices and management is employee turnover. You might end up hiring someone unfit for the position. Or you may pass over excellent candidates for assignments or promotions due to bias.  

If a candidate or employee accuses you of biased practices, you could face lawsuits, fines, or court hearings regarding workplace discrimination. 

Biased hiring practices also often lead to homogenous workplaces, since many biases lead people to group with people who look or act like them, proving the aphorism – we like people like us. Diversity has been shown to improve business outcomes above industry medians in many areas of the marketplace.  

Bias is an unavoidable part of personal and professional life. With that in mind if you want to create a pleasant workplace, limit or eliminate the impact of bias in your workplace by training and educating managers and employees. A study done by The Behavioral Insights Team shows that it isn’t the easiest job. 

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