Unconscious bias, or implicit bias, describes a subconscious attitude that affects the way individuals feel and think about others around them. Subconscious attitudes aren’t necessarily as well-formed as coherent thoughts, but they can be very ingrained and impact the emotional and rational responses of individuals in everyday situations.
What Is Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious bias is a prejudice or stereotype individuals hold about certain groups of people that they aren’t consciously aware of having.
What Is Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious bias refers to a prejudice or stereotype an individual may hold about a particular group of people that they aren’t fully aware of. Also known as implicit bias, this bias can be directed toward people of certain races, gender identities, sexual orientations, physical abilities or even personal traits.
Biases and prejudices often develop in early childhood as children begin to make assumptions based on personal experiences. They may also receive stereotypes from parents, education systems and other cultural institutions, as well as from popular forms of media such as books, movies and television. As a result, unconscious biases can be forged over many years while going undetected.
Some of the most common types of unconscious biases are in how individuals regard their own thought processes and reasoning abilities, such as focusing on negative qualities of individuals that align with one’s existing attitudes — like in confirmation bias and affirmation bias.
Other unconscious biases are directly related to how other people may look. These types of biases tend to rely on stereotypes and can result in discriminatory practices when people are not treated like individuals, such as racism, ageism and beauty bias.
16 Examples of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace
We’ve identified 16 types of unconscious bias that commonly affect candidates and employees, and also provided some tips for how to avoid them when hiring and retaining employees.
Unconscious Bias Examples
- Affinity bias
- Attribution bias
- Authority bias
- Beauty bias
- Confirmation bias
- Conformity bias
- Gender bias
- Halo effect
- Horn effect
Affinity bias, also known as similarity bias, is the tendency people have to connect with others who share similar interests, experiences and backgrounds.
When companies hire for “culture fit,” they are likely falling prey to affinity bias. When hiring teams meet someone they like and who they know will get along with the team, it’s more often than not because that person shares similar interests, experiences and backgrounds, which is not helping your team grow and diversify. While similarities shouldn’t automatically disqualify a candidate, they should never be the deciding factor, either.
How to Avoid Affinity Bias
To avoid affinity bias, actively take note of the similarities you share with the candidate so that you can differentiate between attributes that may cloud your judgment and the concrete skills, experiences and unique qualities that would contribute to your team as a “culture add” rather than “culture fit.”
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Ageism in the workplace is the tendency to have negative feelings about another person based on their age.
Ageism affects older people more often than younger people. About two-thirds of workers aged 50 and over believe older employees face discrimination because of their age. The later employees are in their careers, the more difficult it is to change careers, find a job or move up in their careers because employers tend to value younger talent — even though experience and expertise are critical skills for any successful business.
How to Avoid Ageism
To avoid ageism in the workplace, train your team members to understand the issue of ageism and debunk some of the myths about workers of different ages. Your company should also create a policy that prevents age bias along with hiring goals to keep age diversity top of mind when recruiting new talent.
Anchor bias, or expectation anchor bias, is when someone holds onto an initial, singular piece of information to make decisions.
Anchor bias commonly occurs in the hiring process while comparing candidates. A recruiter may see one aspect of a candidate and then cannot “unsee” that characteristic while considering other applicants. For example, the first applicant a recruiter considers may request a significantly lower salary than the following candidates. This can create an expectation anchor bias that the latter candidates are asking for too much.
How to Avoid Anchor Bias
To avoid anchor bias, try to compare every aspect of a candidate and never rely on one singular piece of information as a deciding factor. If you find yourself coming back to one piece of information you’re comparing against, try omitting that anchoring piece of information and comparing candidates based on their other characteristics and qualifications.
Attribution bias is a phenomenon where you try to make sense of or judge a person’s behavior based on prior observations and interactions you’ve had with that individual that make up your perception of them.
While this may seem harmless, humans are quick to judge and falsely assume things about a person without knowing their full story. When hiring, attribution bias can cause hiring managers and recruiters to determine a candidate unfit for the job because of something unusual on their resume or unexpected behavior during the interview.
How to Avoid Attribution Bias
Rather than assume a candidate is unfit for a job because they were late to the interview, ask them what happened — it could be totally innocent and unprecedented. If there is something on their resume or something they said during the interview that caused you to draw conclusions about the candidate, ask them further clarifying questions. Don’t forget that interviewees are often nervous and may misspeak or stumble. Give them a chance to share their full story with you before you judge.
Authority bias refers to when an idea or opinion is given more attention or thought to be more accurate because it was provided by an authority figure.
Authority bias is very easy to find in the workplace because hierarchies are already in place. Existing hierarchies make it incredibly easy to simply follow the leader, even if the leader’s ideas aren’t what is best for the company or their employees. But putting too much trust and power in leadership roles can limit employee engagement, hinder employees’ professional growth and ultimately damage a company’s ability to innovate.
How to Avoid Authority Bias
Avoiding authority bias can be difficult depending on the culture of a workplace. One of the best ways to avoid this bias is to foster an environment of ideas, where others speak up and voice their own opinions and ideas.
Beauty bias is a social behavior where people believe that those they perceive as attractive are more successful, competent and qualified.
While appearance (race aside) is not protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it is a form of bias that is prominent in the workplace. Many people connect conventional beauty to higher levels of intelligence, social skills and physical health. Workers considered physically attractive can go on to earn up to 15 percent more than workers considered less physically attractive. At the same time, candidates considered physically attractive may also be discriminated against by hiring teams due to perceived entitlement.
How to Avoid Beauty Bias
To avoid beauty bias, companies should create structured recruiting and interview processes so that your team will be able to compare applications and interviews equally and reduce the risk of bias. Phone screenings (as opposed to video calls) and unbiased technologies can also help teams identify top candidates.
Confirmation bias is the inclination to draw conclusions about a situation or person based on your personal desires, beliefs and prejudices rather than on unbiased merit.
In hiring, confirmation bias often plays a detrimental role at the very beginning of the process when you first review a resume and form an initial opinion of the candidate based on inconsequential attributes like their name, where they’re from, where they went to school and so forth. This opinion can follow you into the interview process and consequently steer questions to confirm the initial opinion of the candidate.
How to Avoid Confirmation Bias
While every interview will lend itself to a unique conversation based on the individual’s background, it’s important to ask standardized, skills-based questions that provide each candidate with a fair chance to stand out. This will help prevent your team from asking too many off-the-cuff questions that may lead to confirmation bias.
Conformity bias, more commonly known as peer pressure, is the tendency people have to act similar to the people around them regardless of their own personal beliefs or idiosyncrasies.
When your hiring team gets together to review a candidate’s application materials and conduct the interview, conformity bias can cause individuals to sway their opinion of a candidate to match the opinion of the majority. The problem is the majority is not always right, which may cause your team to miss out on an excellent candidate because individual opinions become muddled in a group setting.
How to Avoid Conformity Bias
Before you get your hiring team together to review a candidate, have them all write down and submit their individual opinions separate from one another immediately after the interview ends. Then have your team come together and review what everyone wrote down so you can hear their impartial opinions and avoid conformity bias in the process.
The contrast effect is when you compare two or more things that you have come into contact with — either simultaneously or one after another — causing you to exaggerate the performance of one in contrast to the other.
This one is a bit of a mind-bender, but it’s also one of the most common types of bias in the recruiting industry. When you’re reviewing loads of candidates, it can be easy to compare one application to the next in the stack and determine which one is better than the other. An exceptionally good interview with one candidate may make the next one seem terrible.
How to Avoid the Contrast Effect
To avoid the contrast effect, create a structured applicant review and interview process so that your team will be able to compare applications and interview answers as apples-to-apples rather than apples-to-oranges. This also goes for performance reviews and rewards for individual employees.
Gender bias is the tendency to prefer one gender over another gender.
Too often men are given preferential treatment over women in the workplace. According to Lean In’s Women in the Workplace study, women only occupy about 25 percent of C-suite executive positions, and for every 100 men promoted from entry-level to manager roles, only 87 women are promoted.
How to Avoid Gender Bias
Avoid gender bias by conducting anonymous screenings of applications that exclude aspects of a candidate that may reveal their assumed gender, like name and interests. Set diversity hiring goals to ensure your company holds itself accountable to equitable hiring practices. And again, make sure to compare candidates based on skill and merit rather than traits that can cloud your judgment of them.
The halo effect is the tendency people have to place another person on a pedestal after learning something impressive about them.
The halo effect can come into play at any stage of the hiring process. You may see a candidate worked at a highly regarded company or graduated from an elite school, but if there’s anything we’ve learned about the 2019 college admissions scandal, it’s to not judge a candidate on the merit of their name-brand education.
How to Avoid the Halo Effect
The halo effect can be dangerously blinding when it comes to reviewing candidates, but it can be avoided. When reviewing a stack of applications, you are probably looking for something unique that makes a candidate stand out from the rest. When you do this, also consider the candidate without that one gleaming attribute and see how their experiences, skills and personalities compare to other candidates who may not have had the same privileges or opportunities.
Height bias or heightism is the tendency to judge a person who is significantly short or tall.
This may seem a bit far-fetched, but one study found that one’s annual earnings can increase up to 13 percent with an additional centimeter in height. Another study found that tall candidates are perceived as more competent, employable and healthy, which may explain why 58 percent of male CEOs at major companies are over six feet tall.
How to Avoid Height Bias
Conducting anonymous interviews, phone interviews or video interviews will reduce your susceptibility to judge a person based on their height. Also, simply knowing that this bias is a common social behavior will help you identify your bias against candidates.
The horn effect is the tendency people have to view another person negatively after learning something unpleasant or negative about them.
The direct opposite of the halo effect, the horn effect can cause hiring teams to weed out candidates based on a trait that is averse to the team’s preferences. This could be something as trivial as the candidate working with a company you personally dislike or the candidate displaying a particular quirk or mannerism during the interview. Such traits may alter your perception of the candidate entirely even though it’s a small factor that may not even be relevant.
How to Avoid the Horn Effect
If you have a negative feeling about a candidate, take the time to figure out exactly where that gut feeling is coming from. It may be something superficial or insignificant that shouldn’t affect their chance at the role. You may also want to check with the rest of the interviewing team to understand the root of their opinions and preferences about a candidate.
Name bias is the tendency people have to judge and prefer people with certain types of names — typically names that are of Anglo origin.
This is one of the most pervasive examples of unconscious bias in the hiring process, and the numbers bear it out. One study found that white names receive significantly more callbacks for interviews than Black names. Another study found that Asian last names are 28 percent less likely to receive a callback for an interview compared to Anglo last names.
How to Avoid Name Bias
Name bias can be avoided if you omit the candidate’s name and personal information — like email, phone number and address — from their application materials. You can either do this by assigning candidates a number or have an unbiased third-party team member omit this information for the hiring team until they bring a candidate in to interview. This will ensure that hiring teams are selecting candidates based on their skills and experiences without the influence of irrelevant personal information.
Nonverbal bias is analyzing nonverbal communication attributes such as body language and letting it affect a decision or opinion.
When you meet a candidate (whether it’s in person or virtually) for an interview, nonverbal bias can creep in. Whether it’s a weak handshake, folded arms or difficulty holding eye contact, it’s easy to take these cues as disinterest, overconfidence or an overall negative attitude. It’s important to remember that the way a person moves through the world is not indicative of their true intentions or whether they will be a successful addition to your team or not.
How to Avoid Nonverbal Bias
Remember that everyone is different — this includes their mannerisms and ways of communicating physically. For example, if a candidate keeps their arms crossed in an interview, perhaps it’s simply a nervous response. You can teach someone to uncross their arms, but that doesn’t mean they will bring the necessary skills to their position.
The overconfidence bias refers to a person’s tendency to be more confident in their capabilities than they should be.
Overconfidence bias may not lead to the kinds of hiring and recruiting issues other biases cause, but it can create conflict within an organization and cause a company to not live up to its potential. When overconfidence bias is allowed to flow freely, companies or employees with this bias do not believe they need to make improvements, thus affecting their own growth as well as the company’s growth.
How to Avoid Overconfidence Bias
One way to avoid overconfidence bias is to continue your work on affinity bias and hire a diverse team that doesn’t fall into the groupthink trap. It will be more difficult for overconfidence to take over if you foster a diverse and challenging environment.
How to Reduce and Prevent Unconscious Bias
To seriously address unconscious biases, commit to some long-term strategies. The following ideas enable businesses to cultivate more welcoming workplaces that a wider range of candidates will want to join.
Tips to Reduce and Prevent Unconscious Bias
- Unconscious bias training
- Talent assessments and candidate scorecards
- Diversity hiring goals
- Different interview techniques and formats
- Diverse and inclusive culture
1. Unconscious Bias Training
Education is an important step in becoming more aware of unconscious biases. Conduct unconscious bias training programs to teach employees how factors like language can alienate candidates and coworkers. Training sessions are also an excellent opportunity to set expectations for how leaders should enforce diverse, equitable and inclusive practices going forward.
2. Diversity Hiring Goals
Seek out diverse sources of talent by opening up positions to remote candidates, which broadens the candidate pool to include people of varying life experiences, and targeting historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
3. Talent Assessments and Candidate Scorecards
Develop objective interview and hiring methods. Talent assessments and interview scorecards create a common structure for grading all candidates, which ensures interviews stay the course and don’t dive too deep into candidates’ personal backgrounds.
4. Different Interview Techniques and Formats
Diversify your interview tactics and formats to make your interview process less prone to bias. Phone interviews are a great way to prevent beauty bias from influencing recruiting decisions. A common set of pre-interview questions is another interview technique that creates a more standard, less biased interview setup.
5. Diverse and Inclusive Culture
Addressing unconscious biases is just one of the many DEI initiatives companies should be investing in. Leaders should collaborate with HR to develop guidelines and policies that serve as the foundation for a diverse and inclusive culture. This is a more holistic approach that proves DEI is a permanent part of a company’s identity, not just a catchphrase.
DEI experts offer solutions to create a radically inclusive workplace.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias, or implicit bias, is a prejudice or stereotype someone may have about a specific group of people without being fully aware of it. This kind of bias is often preconceived and learned in one's early childhood, and can affect how an individual treats certain people around them.
Some examples of unconscious bias include racial bias, gender bias and age bias.
Differences between conscious and unconscious bias
Conscious bias, or explicit bias, involves known attitudes about certain groups of people. In contrast, unconscious bias involves attitudes about certain groups of people that are outside of one's own awareness.
Unconscious bias can be more difficult to recognize than conscious bias, and may lead to unintentional actions and treatment toward others.
How to overcome unconscious bias
To overcome unconscious bias, it can be helpful to:
- Acknowledge biases where possible
- Avoid making assumptions about others
- Engage in unconscious bias training and education
- Establish fair evaluation procedures and rating systems at the organizational level
- Foster a diverse and inclusive organizational culture