A recent conversation about inclusivity lead me to the idea of writing an article breaking down ten dominant forms of unconscious bias in the workplace. Because my theoretical lens in my therapy practice focuses on that which we are not conscious of---and how those hidden impulses drive our lives more than we might imagine---it caught my attention. It is worth exploring unconscious bias, and how it affects us in our social sphere---especially our professional realm.
Unconscious biases are learned assumptions, beliefs, or attitudes that we aren’t necessarily aware of. While bias is a normal part of human brain function, it can often reinforce stereotypes.
To combat unconscious bias, learn about different types of biases, how they might surface at work and other places, and how to avoid them so you can build a more inclusive and diverse world.
Whether we realize it or not, our unconscious biases influence our lives, from the way we think to the way we interact with other human beings. Unconscious biases are mental shortcuts that aid decision-making as the brain processes millions of pieces of information per second.
That being said, these biases can lead to skewed judgments and reinforce stereotypes, doing more harm than good when it comes to recruitment in a professional setting, investment decisions, building personal relationships, and facilitating inclusivity in daily life.
Let’s focus on how unconscious bias plays out specifically in the workplace, including where potential financial investors “choose” to support start-up’s and up-scaling opportunities. It’s especially important to be aware of these biases during the hiring and investment processes as it will impact the success of your future team.
To help recognize and combat unconscious bias, let’s look at bias examples and prevention strategies. Taking the steps to reduce biases will help you improve inclusivity, trust, and productivity within organizations.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, is a learned assumption, belief, or attitude that exists in the subconscious. Everyone has these biases and uses them as mental shortcuts for faster information-processing. Implicit biases are developed over time as we accumulate life experiences and get exposed to different stereotypes.
According to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, “These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.” As a result, unconscious biases can have a big influence on our limiting beliefs and behaviors. When this translates into business and investment decisions, it can affect the way we hire, invest, and interact with colleagues. If not properly addressed, these biases can negatively impact an organization’s workplace culture and team dynamics. Although these biases are pervasive, you can reduce their impact with deliberate attention and effort. Being aware of and understanding the different types of biases that exist can help you find ways to combat them.
Types of unconscious bias
Unconscious biases manifest in different ways and have varying consequences. Some biases arise from judging people’s appearances, some are derived from preconceived notions, and others are borne of logical fallacies. We explore these common biases in detail below.
1. Gender bias
Gender bias, the favoring of one gender over another, is also often referred to as sexism. This bias occurs when someone unconsciously associates certain stereotypes with different genders. This type of bias may affect recruitment practices, investment decisions, and relationship dynamics. An example of this bias during hiring is if the hiring panel favors male candidates over female candidates even though they have similar skills and job experience.
Another well-known example is the gender pay gap. As of 2021, the average median salary for men is about 18% higher than women. The gender bias may reduce job and career advancement and investment opportunities for certain populations.
---> How to avoid gender bias
Here are some ways to create a more gender-diverse workplace:
Set gender-neutral recruitment and investment standards: Define the ideal candidate profile ahead of time and evaluate all candidates against those standards.
Create diversity goals: Set qualitative gender diversity goals to create a more gender-balanced team. Support and provide resources for women to take on leadership roles.
Ageism refers to stereotyping or discriminating against others based on their age, often happening to older team members. Although workers ages 40 and older are protected from workplace discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, filing for a lawsuit against an employer can be a lengthy and costly process.
Because not everyone files a complaint, ageism is still a prevalent issue. An AARP survey found that about 60% of workers age 45 and older have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. An example of ageism is if an older team member was passed over for a promotion, which ended up going to a younger team member with less seniority and experience.
Companies that discriminate based on age may lose out on the valuable knowledge and experience that older workers bring. There may also be serious legal consequences if a team member decides to file a job discrimination lawsuit.
---> How to avoid ageism bias:
Preventing ageism involves combatting age-related stereotypes as well as engaging older team members in the workplace. Here are some ways to do that:
Don’t make assumptions based on age: For example, don’t automatically presume that older workers don’t know how to use technology or aren’t open to learning new skills. Provide equal learning opportunities for everyone.
Foster cross-generational collaboration: Create two-way mentorship programs where a senior team member is paired with a new hire. This kind of collaboration facilitates communication between team members of different stages, which can help break down misconceptions about age.
3. Name bias
Name bias is the tendency to prefer certain names over others, usually Anglo-sounding names. Name bias is most prevalent in recruitment. If a recruiter tends to offer interviews to candidates with Anglo-sounding names over equally qualified candidates with non-Anglo names, this bias is present. Name bias can have a negative impact on diversity hiring and result in companies missing out on talented candidates. Name bias can even affect opportunities for potential business investments.
---> How to avoid name bias
A simple solution to avoid name bias is to omit names of candidates when screening. To do this, you can:
Use software: Use blind hiring software to block out candidates’ personal details on resumes.
Do it manually: Designate a team member to remove personal information on resumes for the hiring team.
4. Beauty bias
Beauty bias refers to the favorable treatment and positive stereotyping of individuals who are considered more attractive. This has also given rise to the term “lookism,” which is discrimination based on physical appearance. An example of beauty bias is a hiring manager or investor who is more inclined to hire candidates they think are good-looking.
Hiring and investment decisions should be based on skills, experience, and culture fit rather than physical appearance.
--->How to avoid beauty bias
Here are some ways to avoid beauty bias when screening job applicants:
Omit pictures from resumes and other qualifying information: Focus on an applicant’s qualifications and experience when screening resumes.
Conduct telephone screening: Before scheduling an interview, consider doing a short telephone interview to get to know the applicant better without being influenced by their appearance.
5. Halo effect
The halo effect, a term coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike in the 1920s, occurs when we develop an overall positive impression of someone because of one of their qualities or traits. This effect may lead us to inadvertently put people on a pedestal since we’re constructing an image of a person based on limited information. An example of this effect in recruitment is when a hiring manager sees that a candidate graduated from a prestigious school and assumes that they excel at their job. Another example is a potential investor decides to place their resources with a person that has worked at an organization that is established and recognized.
This halo is based on the investor’s or hiring manager’s preferences. However, the school that someone went to or the firm they worked for doesn’t necessarily determine their level of competency. By focusing too much on one positive trait, we may overlook negative behavior that could end up harming the company—for example, if a candidate was fired for misconduct in a previous job.
---> How to avoid the halo effect
To reduce the impact of the halo effect, you could try out different strategies:
Conduct multiple interviews: Set up several rounds of interviews for candidates with different levels of expertise. That way, a candidate can be evaluated from various perspectives.
Diversify your team: Getting someone from another team to interview the candidate may help since they’ll have less reason to “halo” them as they won’t be working with them directly.
6. Horns effect
The horns effect is the opposite of the halo effect. This bias causes us to have a negative impression of someone based on one trait or experience. Putting too much weight on a single trait or interaction with someone can lead to inaccurate and unfair judgments of their character. For example, a new team member thinks the constructive criticism they received from their manager is harsh and assumes that their manager is a critical and stern person. If left unchecked, the horns effect can damage the cohesiveness and trust between team members.
---> How to avoid the horns effect
In order to reduce the horns effect when interacting with others, try to:
Challenge your first impressions: Take the time to get to know someone so you can develop a more concrete impression of that person as a whole.
Make judgments based on evidence: Ask yourself how you developed your first impression of someone and find evidence to support or refute that impression based on additional interactions.
7. Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out and use information that confirms one’s views and expectations. In other words, cherry-picking information to validate certain points. This affects our ability to think critically and objectively, which can lead to skewed interpretations of information and overlooking information with opposing views. For example, a product developer comes up with a product idea for the athletic market. Although market research shows little interest in the product, they try to validate the idea by reaching out to athlete friends who they know will support the idea. Although there’s gratification in validating a current idea, it’s important to consider the potential consequences of following through with the idea.
---> How to avoid confirmation bias
Here are some ways to reduce confirmation bias:
Gather multiple sources: Whenever you are testing a hypothesis or conducting research, gather information from a wide variety of sources to get a balanced perspective.
Standardize interview questions. When recruiting new talent, come up with a list of standard interview questions to prevent asking off-topic or pointed questions that may or may not confirm your beliefs about a candidate.
8. Conformity bias
Conformity bias is similar to groupthink, which occurs when we change our opinions or behaviors to match that of the bigger group, even if it doesn’t reflect our own opinions. This bias may occur when we encounter peer pressure or are trying to fit into a certain social group or professional environment. For example, a team is deciding between two proposals. One person thinks proposal A is better, but the rest of the team is leaning towards proposal B. That person is swayed by their opinions and ends up voting for proposal B because everyone else did. Although conformity can help prevent conflicts, it may also limit creativity, open discussions, and having other perspectives available.
---> How to avoid conformity bias
Here are some ways to help encourage honest opinions in the workplace:
Use anonymous votes or surveys: The option to give feedback anonymously allows the freedom to express opinions without worrying about others’ preferences.
Ask for opinions in advance: Before going into a meeting, have a private conversation with each team member to get their opinions. This gives everyone plenty of time to think about a topic and express their thoughts without the pressure of presenting in front of colleagues.
9. Affinity bias
Affinity bias is also known as the similarity bias and refers to the tendency to favor people who share similar interests, backgrounds, and experiences. We tend to feel more comfortable around people who are like us. This bias may affect hiring and investing decisions. For example, a business investor gravitates towards a person needing resources for a start-up because they share the same alma mater. Over time, the affinity bias can hamper diversity and inclusion efforts.
---> How to avoid affinity bias
While eliminating affinity bias entirely may not be possible, here are ways to reduce its effects:
Create a diverse investment decision-making panel: Different people with varying perspectives and interests that conduct interviews can help reduce the affinity bias of one individual.
Go beyond hiring for “culture fit": The more hiring managers have in common with candidates, the more likely they are to evaluate them as a good “culture fit.” But the term "culture fit" is vague, and it can mean different things to different people. To assess candidates fairly, use specific language and examples when sharing feedback about them. Describe how well they embody company values or align with company missions.
10. Contrast effect
We often make judgments by making comparisons. As a result, our judgments may be altered depending on what standard we’re comparing something to. This is known as the contrast effect. For instance, a team member is happy to receive a “meets expectations” on their performance review. However, they start to feel inadequate after finding out most of their colleagues got “exceeds expectations” on their reviews. Even though they got a decent review, the team member judges themselves more critically since their comparison standard is their colleagues’ results. There can also be positive contrast effects, which occur when something is perceived to be better than usual because it’s being compared to something worse.
---> How to avoid the contrast effect
Here are some strategies to try when using comparisons to make decisions:
Make multiple comparisons: Instead of coming to a conclusion after making one comparison, compare something against different standards to broaden your perspective.
Talk it out: Explain how you came to a given conclusion to your colleagues so they can understand your point of view.
Unconscious bias are thoughts or feelings we are not directly aware of that influence our judgement.
They are attitudes and stereotypes that affect our views, our actions, and our decision-making ability which we have unconsciously created from our own background and experiences. There are many other unconscious biases such as status quo bias, authority bias, overconfidence bias, and illusory correlation---but the ten noted are the most common biases. Now, more than ever, it is important to reflect on how we unconsciously make decisions without thorough reflection and precision action.