4 Ways Unconscious Bias May Be Affecting Your Workplace

Gail Tolstoi-Miller

CEO of Consultnetworx and Udemy for Business instructor

August 1, 2019

Unconscious bias is all around us, though we don’t often realize it. An unconscious bias is when incorrect and often biased judgments about people occur due to stereotyping. These types of biases are so ingrained in our culture and society they often go unnoticed, particularly in terms of gender, age, and racial stereotyping.

So how does this happen? Our brains are bombarded with 11 million pieces of information at any given time, but we can only handle about 40. To avoid our brain getting overloaded, we use a mental “filing cabinet” that reverts to previous experiences. This cataloging based on past experience helps us make quick decisions—otherwise our days would be mentally exhausting. For example, when driving your car from your house to the supermarket—you automatically drive without much thought. Or if someone you trust refers a person to your company, you’re likely to be more lenient with them than with a candidate whose application simply lands on your desk. But when we make quick judgments like these, we can also make the wrong decisions about people and situations because we see things through our lens. 

Don’t tell their story, let them tell their story

When you let unconscious bias guide your decisions, you’re creating the story for someone else. We all have stereotypes of cultures and groups of people and it’s easy to rely on these stories you’ve heard before. But every person is unique. Don’t tell their story; let them tell their story. 

As a recruiter and CEO of Consultnetworx—an organization that focuses on coaching and training on staffing strategy, unconscious bias, diversity, and corporate culture—I’ve had the opportunity to observe how companies make biased hiring decisions, and I’ve made it my mission to change the status quo. In my Udemy course, Unconscious Bias: Fuel Diversity and Become a Better You, I share how different types of bias can affect workplace decisions and offer tactics for limiting bias at your organization. In this post, I’ll share a few tips on how you and your organization can address unconscious bias in the workplace.

Why is unconscious bias training important? 

For anyone who is skeptical about their own unconscious bias, I recommend taking a moment to check out Harvard’s online implicit association tests. These tests will give you a good idea of just how ingrained our biases can be. 

On the organizational level, biases can impact our decisions to hire and promote certain people. This can hurt our ability to create an inclusive and diverse workforce. Companies that reduce bias ultimately become more inclusive. Moreover, respecting and embracing people’s differences creates more innovation, which in turn helps clients and revenue. Research like McKinsey’s Delivering through Diversity demonstrates the connection between diversity, inclusion, and company performance. For example, McKinsey’s 2017 data shows that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. Similarly, companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams are 33% more likely to outperform their peers on profitability.

As an individual, delving into unconscious bias helps you get to know more about yourself. You see other people’s stories and become more empathetic of other people’s situations. Reducing the power of unconscious bias helps you become the best version of yourself. 

4 common types of unconscious bias

In my course, Unconscious Bias: Fuel Diversity and Become a Better You, I introduce many of the most common types of unconscious bias and share case studies and examples. Here’s a quick overview of a few types.

1. Affinity bias

Affinity Bias refers to our unconscious tendency to get along with others who are like us—people who went to the same college, grew up in the same town, have similar backgrounds, similar interests, or similar hobbies. It is easy to socialize and spend time with others who are the same as us. It requires more effort to bridge differences when diversity is present. 

Studies show that, in general, people extend not only greater trust, but also greater positive regard, cooperation, and empathy to ingroup members compared with outgroup members. This preference for people like ourselves is largely instinctive and unconscious. Affinity bias manifests not only as a preference for ingroup members, but it may also manifest as an aversive tendency towards outgroup members. For example, we are more likely to withhold praise or rewards from outgroup members.

2. Beauty bias

Beauty bias refers to the fact that people who are attractive are usually rewarded socially. A study by Ken Podratz of Rice University found that while average-looking and attractive men were picked more often for jobs such as switchboard operator or tow-truck driver, beautiful women lost these same positions to less attractive females. In some jobs, an employer’s gender was a factor. Men were eager to place attractive females in jobs that emphasize appearance or interpersonal contact, such as receptionist, dietitian, or public relations officer. Female employers were less willing to do so. But for “male-oriented” jobs or jobs in which appearance wasn’t considered important, both men and women opted for the less attractive women.

The reason? “Physical attractiveness is correlated with perceived femininity in women,” says Podratz. “If a highly attractive female applies for a hypermasculine job such as truck driver or security guard, she is likely to be seen as less capable of meeting the physical demands of the job.” These results “open up a can of worms,” says Podratz, who, in this study, asked 66 subjects to consider 204 headshots, all rated for attractiveness, as candidates for jobs. 

3. Conformity bias 

Conformity bias is our tendency to take cues for proper behavior in most contexts from the actions of others rather than to exercise our own independent judgment. Conformity bias may occur when we face peer pressure or are trying to fit into particular professional or social environments. 

In one study on the effects of conformity bias, participants are asked to answer a simple question based on two images. One individual is asked to give their answer while everyone else is secretly instructed to give the incorrect answer. In 75% of cases, the person who answered correctly will second-guess themselves and change their answer based on the feedback they’re getting from the rest of the group. 

4. Halo/horns bias

Halo bias takes place when a person forms a positive impression of another person, company, or brand, based on one positive interaction or characteristic. It was named by psychologist Edward Thorndike in reference to a person being perceived as having a halo. On the other hand, the horns bias comes into play when one bad trait ( the “horns”) overshadows other traits, behaviors, actions, or beliefs. Thorndike found that the way commanding officers rated their soldiers was generally all positive or all negative—they were unlikely to say someone was good in some respects but bad in others.

The halo effect can potentially affect the way employees are hired, given assignments, and promoted, when a positive first impression gives one person an unfair advantage over their peers (and much more leeway to make mistakes or coast without making extra effort).

Tactics for overcoming bias

Now that we’ve covered a few of the types of unconscious bias likely to occur in the workplace, here how are ways you and your organization can reduce or overcome them.

  • Instilling checks and balances is really important, especially when it comes to recruiting. Communicating with one another and challenging each other in a professional manner prevents bias from sneaking into important decisions like hiring or promotions. For example, when hiring managers say they only want to hire people with Ivy League degrees, it’s important to challenge them and communicate why this approach is excluding perfectly capable candidates. 
  • Creating processes and procedures can help reduce the bias in hiring, promotion, and overall employee experience, which ultimately enhances your company culture. For example, your recruiting team can institute a policy of identifying candidates from diverse sources. Or you might create a parental leave policy that’s inclusive of many different people (mothers, fathers, and adoptive parents). 
  • Developing mindfulness is another tactic that doesn’t get used enough when addressing unconscious bias. Our brains are overloaded with information and often make quick judgments. When we make quick judgments and assumptions, we get in trouble. Mindfulness teaches you to pause, allowing you to focus. Studies show that mindfulness really makes a difference. For example, in one study, brief mindfulness training decreased unconscious bias against black people and elderly people. Instituting a mindfulness training program can provide mental tools for your employees to check their unconscious biases at work.

We’ve just scratched the surface of the many ways unconscious bias can affect our behavior and decisions in the workplace. Check out my course, Unconscious Bias: Fuel Diversity and Become a Better You, to learn more about different types of unconscious bias and practice using different tactics for overcoming it in the workplace.

About the author:

Gail Tolstoi-Miller is the CEO of Consultnetworx, a company that provides coaching and training for staffing strategy, unconscious bias, Diversity, and corporate culture to companies from startups to the Fortune 500. She has spoken about unconscious bias at TEDx and teaches Unconscious Bias: Fuel Diversity and Become a Better You on Udemy.

About Udemy for Business:

Udemy for Business is a learning platform that helps companies stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing workplace by offering fresh, relevant on-demand learning content, curated from the Udemy marketplace. Our mission is to help employees do whatever comes next—whether that’s the next project to do, skill to learn, or role to master. We’d love to partner with you on your employee development needs. Get in touch with us at business@udemy.com

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