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Unconscious Bias and Its Effects on the Workplace

Published October 1, 2022 (last updated on May 15, 2024) | Adam Wyatt - Copywriter and Content Creator


Studies have shown that increasing numbers of women and people of colour are choosing to leave their jobs due to bias and lack of support in the workplace. This exodus can be the beginning of a crisis with serious long-term impacts for employers. It is crucial that employers address unconscious bias at the workplace. Unconscious bias is a subconscious preference that may affect your opinion of someone. Unconscious bias is not a recognised illegal method like discrimination. However, if unconscious biases aren’t addressed, they can influence their decisions in a negative way.

In our blog today, we take a brief look at what is unconscious bias at the workplace, how does it affect your business, the types of unconscious bias, and how you can eliminate it. These tips will come handy to employers as workplaces start to become global and diverse.

What is unconscious bias at the workplace?

Unconscious bias as the name suggests is what happens when we act on subconscious, stereotypes, behaviours, or ingrained biases that are formed due to our environment, upbringing, family, or lived experiences. It is also known as implicit bias. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity defines implicit bias as ‘encompassing favourable and unfavourable assessments, activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.’ These biases can also be hidden or covered for social or political correctness.

Unconscious biases are judgments or beliefs built up over a lifetime. Bias is natural, it helps our brain focus or make quick decisions relying on instinct in times of crisis. But it can also affect your decision-making skills. Unconscious bias can negatively affect your judgment, and this can influence recruitment or promotion or career progression for employees.

When we rely on instinct or gut feeling, what we are often relying on or indirectly referencing is our unconscious bias. People may be affected by your actions or could end up being unfairly discriminated against or being favoured. It may happen in a subtle manner, and you may not even realise you are being unconsciously biased till someone points out or notices the patterns. These biases are subjective and intentionally discriminative.

How can unconscious bias affect your business?

With the current labour shortage and complicated workforce, it is vital that employers and business owners keep an open mind. When reviewing applications or conducting interviews, relying on unconscious bias can limit your talent pool. This can also enforce a narrow view of progress.

  • Can create unfair disadvantages- Studies using identical CVs and job applications have demonstrated name-based discrimination against applicants, disproportionately affecting women and visible minorities. This indicates that unconscious bias creates unfair disadvantages for certain groups of people. The disadvantages manifest in the form of preferring to hire or recruit a particular group/gender/race/sex or offering progression opportunities to a certain group, excluding a particular group either socially, culturally, or financially.

  • Prevents diversity and culture- Unconscious bias leads to a lack of diversity in organisations or businesses. This can set them up for failure as companies with diverse executives and boards tend to outperform those less diverse. In a rapidly shrinking talent pool and global workforce, diversity and culture can help your business develop and succeed effectively.

  • Can lead to a less inclusive workplace- Unconscious biases can result in teams or businesses being comprised mostly of men with similar backgrounds, experiences, and upbringing. It will create a company that cannot think differently or allow for innovation.  

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Types and examples of unconscious bias at the workplace

  • Gender- Gender bias is the favouring of one gender over another, also referred to as sexism. Gender biases hinder women from getting leadership positions, employment opportunities, and the biggest- the gender pay gap. The average median salary for men is 18% higher than women’s average median salary.

  • Cultural- Cultural bias is having a culturally skewed perspective. It means that we believe our practices and customs are the correct standards that other cultures should follow. We see our culture and practices as the norm and other cultures as different or strange.

  • Disability- Those with disability are less likely to land a job than the average New Zealander. The disability bias assumes that it can be harder to work with someone in disability, while data has shown that in 9 out of 10 cases, employees with disability, injury or health condition are as, or more productive than their peers. They also generate less turnover and have fewer workplace injuries than workers.

  • Perception- When we treat someone on inaccurate or simplistic stereotypes or assumptions, it is called perception bias. Perception biases cause social exclusion, discrimination, or difficulty in being inclusive.

  • Idiosyncratic rater- We can be unreliable in rating other people. We rate others based on our subjective or biased interpretations on our definition of success. Research has found that 60% of a manager’s rating is a reflection of the manager rather than the employee they are rating.

How to eliminate unconscious bias in the workplace?

  • Learn about unconscious biases- Awareness creates understanding. Make employees and manager aware that biases exist. If your employees or managers can recognise their individual and inherent biases, it can act as the first step towards eliminating them.

  • Determine how they can affect your business- Unconscious bias determines who gets hired, who gets raises, who gets better projects, and who gets promoted. At each step you can see where unconscious bias can seep in or affect your business. Implement policies or procedures that can reduce unconscious bias such as removing names from resumes.

  • Educate and train employees- Unconscious bias training can come in handy when employees are reluctant to expand their team or be inclusive. Training can support employees in identifying their unconscious biases and see how it affects their work. It can also assure employees who may feel excluded that their concerns are being actively addressed. 

  • Let data inform your decisions- Back your decisions and processes with data. Collect feedback using anonymous employee surveys. Include direct and specific questions about biases employees may have faced.

  • Slow down on decision making- When we make instinctive decisions, we are acting on unconscious or implicit bias. Slow down your decision-making process. Rationalise your thoughts and take emotions or stereotypes out of the equation.

Unconscious bias can cause discrimination or make people feel vulnerable and targeted. If we accept the reality and take proactive steps to reduce and eliminate unconscious bias, it can lead to a diverse and inclusive workplace.

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