Tackling Unconscious Bias in the Workplace: Definition, Examples, and Solutions
Reuben O'Connell
6 minutes
May 17, 2023

Unconscious bias happens without us realising it.

When we meet someone, it’s natural to make judgments about them based on a variety of characteristics. These may be positive  or negative and based on factors such as age, weight, accent, religious values etc.

Our brain makes quick judgements to help us understand someone even if we don’t feel that way. This unintentional bias can impact the way that we treat people, extending to recruitment, onboarding, and work-related activities. 

Without paying attention to bias – understanding our own and calling out other people’s – the negative effects can be devastating.

In fact, according to studies—25% of employees reported that their workplace tolerated racial jokes, 1 in 8 trans people were attacked, and 41% of employees reported having experienced discrimination due to their age. These stats prove biases and discrimination are still major issues in companies. 

The knock-on effects of this can affect the confidence, career-opportunities and mental health of those on the receiving end. As well as impacting company productivity and morale.

For HR and upper management, tackling this bias is of utmost importance as they are in charge of hiring, training, and upskilling employees.

In this guide, we will go over unconscious bias and discrimination, examples of unconscious bias, and how to deal with it. 

Tell me, what is unconscious bias exactly? 

Unconscious bias is making a quick judgement when we see or hear a person for the first time without knowing anything about them. We draw on our past lived experiences, stereotypes, or other social conditioning to form a quick impression of who someone is. 

Having biases is something natural, everyone has some level of it. This is because our minds need to compartmentalise information to understand better and make sense of it. The same protocol is applied to everyone we meet and have met in our lives. This also helps us to make quick decisions instinctively in high-stress scenarios that may protect us.

However, in a workplace, this can have a negative impact. Judging someone based on their name, appearance, or gut instinct can be unfair, even if the judgment is positive. We might not notice it, but the individual on the receiving end certainly can, creating a rift between employees and departments.

Women in tech forum white paper: mentoring for womenWhat is unconscious bias in the workplace? 

Unconscious bias in the workplace is what it sounds like—it’s biased opinions or judgements in the workplace. But, again, this is unintentional and a product of past or current experiences, notions established due to stereotypes, gut instincts, and cultural or societal expectations. 

There are many instances of employees being subjected to implicit bias, these include: 

  • Managers preferring employees with a specific education as they deem it important for the business
  • Women or people of colour being given menial or ‘non-promotable’ tasks

Physical conditions can also be a source of discrimination, as 50% of pregnant women reported having faced some kind of bias towards them due to their condition. It is also vital to understand that workplace discrimination leads to low morale, efficiency, and productivity, resulting in an unfavourable company image and low retention. 

What are examples of unconscious bias? 

As we have established, there are plenty of reasons for people to develop an unconscious bias in their daily lives and the workplace, but these can be categorised to help us better understand because only when we understand the issues can we move past them. 

Age bias in tech

According to AARP—the technological sector has the highest percentage of employees facing ageism, and a study from the University of Gothenburg (Sweden) resulted in a statistic that said people in tech deem “35” to be old. 

Age-based discrimination means older employees are seen as “out of touch” and can’t provide value any longer as times have changed, but this is based on the assumption that older employees haven’t stayed up to date with the latest trends. 

Disability bias

Employees with disabilities can be considered challenging to work with as their disabilities would keep them from ‘pulling their weight’, but a study conducted by Walgreens showed that abled and people with disabilities are equally as productive

In fact, many people with disabilities or long-term health conditions, are actually working harder than the average person to stay on top of their work while managing their health. The bias they experience can be stressful as people may feel that they have to over-work to be seen as equal to an able-bodied colleague.

Halo effect

The Halo effect has other names, such as the “what is beautiful is also good” principle and the “physical attractiveness” stereotype. This is a bias of our cognitive abilities in which the human mind transfers the perspective of one trait to other aspects.

For example: If an individual is physically attractive and well-spoken, then the overall image is that they are also good at their job and liked by others. However, this overwhelming positive influence can also subject the target to be seen as someone with no flaws and alter our judgement of them in a way that’s actually negative. 

Horns effect

This is the opposite of the Halo effect. The Horns effect is the overwhelmingly negative perception of any trait that leads to skewed or unfavourable judgement towards them. 

For example, a company releases a defective product that negatively impacts its image and reliability—while they may recover it over a period of time, that mishap will always be a part of the conversation whenever the company is being discussed.  

Affinity bias

Birds of a feather flock together—you probably have heard this before, and it’s an important point to explain how affinity bias works.

When people see others with similar experiences, educational and cultural backgrounds, upbringing, etc., they form a likeness towards them and favour them more. Which can lead to others being excluded and a loss of innovation as the group may not challenge each other to think differently. 

Listen to Angie Vaux on the Guided podcast on the importance of mentoring, coaching and personal advisory boards.How do we tackle unconscious bias and promote inclusive behaviours? 

This is infamously tricky, however there are various methods organisations can employ to tackle unconscious bias—let’s look at a few of those: 

1. Acknowledgement

The first step to dealing with any issue is realising and coming to terms with the fact that there is an issue that needs to be resolved. Everyone, regardless of where they come from, their religion, race, sexuality, or education—holds some form of unconscious bias.  

So only when you accept that these stigmas and notions are a part of life and are everywhere, affecting millions of people globally—will you move towards breaking them down and making a change for the better. 

2. Mentoring

Designing and implementing a custom-tailored mentorship program can do wonders to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace as it can focus on the root cause of the issues and provide experiences that can change the established notions. 

When you pair employees with different backgrounds to work together and learn from each other—they establish a bond beyond the workplace. Employees see the other side of the fence and realise that the stereotypes or assumptions they may have are just that and the other person is more or less like them—coming from similar backgrounds, having similar experiences in life, and facing the same challenges. This develops a feeling of relatability that eliminates bias and creates a diverse and positive working environment throughout the company. 

A mentoring system can also help streamline the onboarding process and provide employees with a comfortable and positive environment where they can be vocal about their issues and receive guidance from others, which will help them better settle in and raise their confidence and satisfaction. 

3. Lead by example

The employees will do what upper management asks them to do; if those actions have a negative effect, it will result in a negative company culture. Therefore, HR, managers, and other employees in a leadership positions should be role models for others to follow.  

Allow yourself to make mistakes, be vulnerable, and learn from them. This will create an environment where learning is prioritised, and the culture is diverse and cohesive. In addition, if the senior employees are facing these issues and have actively worked on them to reduce the impact of discrimination, then this will motivate others to do the same. 

4. Take an assessment test

These subtle stereotypes are so deeply and carefully embedded within us that, at times, even when we want to work on them, we can’t because it’s challenging to differentiate and pick out our flaws to change these deep-rooted notions. 

So self-assessment can be done via different tests, such as one test developed by Harvard called the “Implicit Association Test,” which helps you root out different associations you may have that result in the development of unconscious bias. 

The verdict 

Now that you better understand unconscious bias and how it can deteriorate an organisation’s culture, environment, and productivity, you can start to tackle it in your day-to-day work life.

Remember that, employees being discriminated against may have low motivation, confidence, and satisfaction, leading to a low retention rate for the company. 

And that mentoring is a highly effective solution to deal with implicit bias within your company as it helps employees understand each other and grow closer. So, If you’re looking for help setting up a mentorship program, consider talking to our expert team!

Check out our other articles for further reading: 

How to Champion Diversity in Remote Teams

Unlock the Power of Employee Resource Groups

50 D&I Statistics to Bookmark in 2023

How to Improve D&I With Mentoring

How to Build Psychological Safety

Avoid Rainbow Washing This Pride Month

Retain Top Female Talent With Guider

6 Effective Diversity and Inclusion Strategies to Implement

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