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Unconscious Bias: Where It Hides and How to Uncover It

December 9, 2020

Social inequality has been brought to the forefront this year, with calls for justice and equity impacting nearly all facets of our society, including our workplaces. Many companies have begun engaging in or ramping up their diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) efforts. The result? A slew of important, potentially unfamiliar concepts for leadership, hiring managers, and employees to consider. One of the most critical of these is the concept of unconscious bias. Here is a quick breakdown of what unconscious bias is, where it can hide in our everyday professional lives, and how to address it.


What Is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias means the beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes we hold about a group of people without even realizing it. Unconscious biases are formed in a variety of ways — for example, our observation of the world around us, the influence of parents, teachers, and friends,  and what we see the media. While we often aren’t consciously aware of these biases, they can impact how we interact with the people around us. Unconscious biases can be about race, gender, age, disability, socioeconomic status, and work experience.

Having unconscious biases doesn’t make you a bad person. In fact, we all have them. Our brains naturally try to organize and make sense of the world by categorizing people, things, and experiences.

However, because the effect of our unconscious biases can be negative, it’s important to recognize that these biases exist, identify where they are at play in our own minds, and make an effort to see beyond them. In the workplace, this is especially crucial for people in positions of power, including those in charge of hiring and promotions.


Why Does Unconscious Bias Matter?

Increased diversity and inclusion in the workplace bring numerous benefits: expanded talent pool, higher employee morale and job satisfaction, increased productivity, higher retention, and even stronger and more positive brand recognition and client satisfaction.

Unfortunately, our biases can stand in the way of all that. Unconscious bias often steers us toward people who look like us, share similar life experiences or more closely fit what society deems the “norm.” This essentially puts blinders on, preventing us from acknowledging or even noticing the strengths and potential contributions of those who are different than us.


Where Can Unconscious Bias Show Up in the Workplace?

Unconscious bias plays a key role in our judgments and decision-making, and the workplace is no exception. It can impact decisions and processes at every level of an organization. Here are a few common places where unconscious bias appears in the workplace:


  • Recruitment and hiring. The initial stage of the employment process is also one of the places unconscious bias comes into play most often. From unwittingly filtering resumes based on demographics like name to relying too heavily on subjective measurements like “culture fit,” interviewers’ biases can significantly reduce the diversity of a company’s applicant pool. To help avoid unconscious bias in the hiring process, companies should consider building in standardized interview questions and metrics, using panel interviews to avoid relying on one interviewer, and using software to anonymize resumes.
  • Promotions. Research has shown that taller people and people considered to be more attractive often have higher salaries and receive more frequent promotion opportunities than their peers. In addition, women with families can often be overlooked for promotions. Managers and company leadership should make sure that promotions are based on standardized, measurable factors and that the promotion process is transparent and thorough.
  • Assumptions of skills/roles. Unconscious bias often does not end with the hiring process. Employees can also bias when it comes to managers’ or colleagues’ assumptions about their positions or their skills and interests. For example, a project manager might assume that an older employee will not understand or be interested in a newly implemented technology. Female employees can encounter the assumption that they are administrative or support staff, while Black employees or employees of Hispanic descent might be assumed to be maintenance or custodial staff. Company leadership can help address these types of biases by providing awareness training, working to ensure representation at all levels of the organization, and consistently communicating the importance or diversity and inclusion.
  • Unconscious bias can also show up in more day-to-day interactions. For example, a male employee who voices strong opinions in a meeting might be seen as proactive and managerial, while a female employee who does the same might be deemed bossy or aggressive. Awareness training and modeling of inclusive communication by leadership and managers can help in these cases as well.


How Can I Uncover My Unconscious Bias?

The first step is to acknowledge that you have unconscious biases (remember, we all do) and that they may be having a negative impact on your colleagues and staff.

Once we have accepted the existence of our biases, it’s time to start digging deep to identify what they actually are. One way to do this is to challenge our “gut feelings” and first impressions. While there are certainly times when it’s important to trust our intuition, the truth is that our initial impressions of people are often driven by unconscious biases – whether a person is like or unlike ourselves.

It’s also important to educate ourselves about how and why the brain produces unconscious bias, how these biases impact the world around us when we act on them, and how we can better communicate about and address these sensitive topics. There are a plethora of books, blogs, podcasts, and courses on the topic, with more research being released every day.

Finally, we can make an effort to expose ourselves to unfamiliar people and experiences. This helps broaden our definition of “normal” and allows us to see the strength and beauty that comes with diversity.

Uncovering and learning to avoid unconscious bias is a lifelong process. If we approach it with curiosity and goodwill rather than dread and guilt, we will make much swifter progress toward a more equitable, inclusive workplace – and world.


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