What Does Unconscious Bias Look Like in the Workplace?

As awareness grows for the need for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, more and more attention is focusing on one of the biggest obstacles to achieving these goals: unconscious bias. As the name suggests, unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, is a prejudice that affects your behavior or choices without you being aware of it. Usually based on mistaken, inaccurate, or incomplete information, unconscious bias can impact a whole range of workplace decisions, from who is considered a “suitable” candidate to which employees are more likely to get promoted.

When it comes to addressing unconscious bias, the first critical step is simply to learn how to recognize it. This is not always easy to do—after all, the insidious problem of unconscious bias is that you don’t realize you hold it, especially when it’s at odds with values that you sincerely believe in. It’s therefore important and necessary to start building your awareness from the ground up; for example, by learning more about the different forms unconscious bias can take and the different ways in which it can play out in workplace interactions.

What are the different types of unconscious bias?

There are many different forms of unconscious bias, and they are not always as straightforward as you being (unconsciously) influenced by an obvious characteristic such as someone’s gender, ethnicity, or age. Some of the types of unconscious bias that people most often encounter in the workplace include:

Affinity bias—Also known as similarity bias, you can think of affinity bias as “like-likes-like.” In other words, it’s the tendency to gravitate toward certain people or treat them more favorably simply because they are like you or like other people you like. Shared similarities that play a role in affinity bias can be just about anything, from schooling or career history to gender or ethnicity to personal likes and dislikes.

Attribution bias—Attribution bias impacts the way we assess the experiences and accomplishments of others. Usually, when we think about our own experiences, we tend to credit our achievements to our merit and personality and attribute our failings to external factors or simply bad luck. However, when evaluating the experiences and achievements of others, attribution bias can cause the opposite to be true—that is, we are more likely to believe that someone else’s success was merely due to luck rather than effort or skill and that their failures resulted from their personality or behavior. This can cause us to seriously underrate the merits and accomplishments of some candidates or employees.

Conformity bias—Most people will be familiar with this type of bias under one of its other names: peer pressure. When conformity bias is at work, you may feel swayed or influenced by others or feel pressure to act as others do rather than according to your own thoughts, beliefs, or values. Confirmation bias is a particular problem in workplace settings as it can lead to groupthink, a situation in which some views tend to dominate without being questioned or critiqued.

Confirmation bias—Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out and focus on information that supports beliefs or opinions we already hold while ignoring information that challenges or contradicts those beliefs. In a workplace context, confirmation bias can lead us to jump to conclusions about people or situations because of our own experiences, preconceptions, or desires, rather than evidence.

The contrast effect—A very common bias in the recruiting industry, the contrast effect occurs when you compare one thing against another (even when there are many other things to compare within the same group) and consequently exaggerate or minimize the performance of one in contrast to the other. For example, if you’re conducting multiple interviews on the same day, the contrast effect can cause an exceptionally good interviewee to make the next candidate seem poorer, even if that candidate is remarkable in comparison to other candidates.

The halo/horns effect—When we let a single positive or negative attribute about a person shape our entire view of them, the halo/horns effect is at work. For instance, if you start to feel like a job candidate is exceptional overall after you learn that they attended a prestigious college, this is an example of the halo effect. On the other hand, if a candidate displays a particular mannerism during an interview that you dislike and that trait causes you to view that person negatively, you’re dealing with an example of the horns effect.

How can unconscious bias manifest itself in the workplace?

Along with understanding more about the different types of unconscious bias, it’s important to understand some of the behaviors and actions that unconscious bias can lead to in a workplace setting. Again, it’s not always as simple as deciding not to hire or promote someone because of their age or gender; often, the ways that unconscious bias plays out in daily work interactions are more subtle. These ways include:

Prove it again—In this manifestation of unconscious bias, people from some groups must prove themselves more than people from other groups. For example, an employee from one group might need to have more years of service than someone from another group to get the same promotion.

Tightrope—For some groups, the range of acceptable behaviors is more restricted than it is for other groups. For example, a mistake made by one employee might be tolerated, whereas another employee might be reprimanded for the same mistake.