Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias or hidden bias, continues to be a timely HR topic, as organizations tackle the challenges of improving workplace diversity, inclusion and equity amid protests against racism and a global pandemic. As part of a multi-pronged approach, unconscious bias training can help employees and managers address their personal bias and the biases of others, and mitigate their effect on business decisions and workplace culture.
A Deloitte inclusion survey of 3,000 full-time US professionals conducted last year found that 80% of respondents believe their organization fosters an inclusive culture, yet 64% said they regularly experience and/or witness bias in the workplace. Among this group, 83% said the bias was indirect or subtle — which often plays out in the form of microaggressions — those everyday slights and insults, often unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to members of marginalized groups.
Further, 84% of the professionals who were targets of bias said it negatively affected their happiness, confidence and well-being. And more than two-thirds said experiencing and/or witnessing bias hurt work engagement and overall productivity.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias occurs when individuals make judgments — either unfair or favorable — about people based on stereotypes or preconceived opinions about race, gender, ethnicity, age, disability or other factors. People aren’t usually aware of their biases, which is why they’re called unconscious, and they stem from the brain’s tendency to group things together to help make sense of the world. Unconscious bias can affect workplace decisions related to hiring, recruiting, promotions, performance reviews and discipline, and also influence interactions with partners, customers, vendors and suppliers.
What are the different types of unconscious bias?
Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that promotes inclusive workplaces for women, recently posted a list of the most common types of unconscious bias. Among them are:
- Affinity bias
Also called like-likes-like, this bias refers to the tendency to relate to and gravitate toward people who share the same race, gender, age or educational background.
This bias is based on negative age stereotypes that discriminate against applicants or employees.
- Beauty bias
This type of bias judges people more positively based on how attractive they are.
- Confirmation bias
This is the tendency to look for or favor information that confirms or supports already held beliefs or values.
- Conformity bias
Similar to groupthink, this type of bias occurs when views are influenced by the views of others.
- Contrast effect
This refers to evaluating one person’s performance in contrast to another because someone (for example, a hiring manager) experienced the individuals either simultaneously or in close succession.
- Gender bias
This bias shows a preference for one gender over another or assumes that one gender is better for the job.
- The halo/horns effect
This is the tendency to put someone on a pedestal or think more highly of them after learning something impressive about them, or conversely, perceiving someone negatively after learning something unfavorable about them.
- Name bias
This bias occurs when a judgment is made about a person based on their name and perceived background.
- Weight bias
This type of bias reinforces negative stereotypes about people because of their weight.
Practices, processes and strategies
Some of the ways that organizations can counteract different types of unconscious bias include:
- Regularly training employees on how to recognize and respond to bias and discrimination.
- Training resume screeners and hiring managers to be on the alert for bias.
- Seeking input from multiple viewpoints, outside the ‘regular group,’ when making employment and other key decisions.
- Researching and reporting hiring, promotion and retention data.
- Sourcing candidates widely.
- Encouraging inclusive-thinking and interaction between different departments and positions.
- Cross-training employees and implementing mentoring programs.
- Promoting bystander intervention, allyship and ongoing conversations about bias, racism and inclusion.
- Setting up a system so that individuals can anonymously report problems, and offer feedback and suggestions for improvements.
While unconscious bias is part of the human condition, if not actively managed, it can create barriers to workplace diversity, inclusion and equity, hurt employee engagement, well-being and productivity, and lead to discrimination and harassment. Unconscious bias training is one of the essential steps to educate and motivate employees to understand their personal bias and make better, more inclusive decisions that can benefit the entire organization.