Types of unconscious bias: examples, effects and solutions

The different types of unconscious bias: examples, effects and solutions

Yvonne Howard is a highly experienced Diversity and Inclusion Consultant with extensive experience in the transportation, construction, engineering and built environment sectors, as well as local government. 

Abstract image of different shapes and shades to illustrate different types of unconscious bias

Unconscious biases, also known as implicit biases, constantly affect our actions. Informed by our experiences, backgrounds and values, these biases are crucial in helping our minds quickly and efficiently navigate the world around us, but often, these biases can be informed by harmful and inaccurate stereotypes. The effect? Individuals can be discriminated against, harming workplace equality, opportunity, culture and productivity.

There are many different types of unconscious bias that workplaces should watch out for. Unconscious bias training gives colleagues the tools to become more aware of their biases and how to manage them, and helps them to spot the different forms of unconscious bias. Here are some of the most commonly experienced – if you recognise any, your business or organisation may benefit from unconscious bias training.

Unconscious bias examples encountered in the workplace?

Affinity Bias

Affinity bias (also known as similarity bias) occurs when we treat people more favourably, simply because they are like us or others we like. Similarities can include any shared commonality, including everything, from likes, dislikes or appearance, to schooling or career history.

Avoiding affinity bias is key to creating diverse teams. When recruiting, it can lead managers to hire individuals who they get along with, but who aren’t necessarily the right fit in terms of experience or skillset. As a result, it can hurt the growth and function of a business, as well as denying opportunities to otherwise deserving applicants.

To avoid affinity bias, ensure that an applicant’s skills and experience are given greater importance than attributes such as background or personality, and implement blind recruitment processes.

Attribution Bias

Attribution bias occurs when we incorrectly evaluate the reasons behind the experiences and accomplishments of others. Usually, this means we believe individuals’ successes are due to luck, as opposed to effort or skill, which is seen to be behind their negative experiences or failures.

Impacting recruitment and appraisals, attribution bias can lead to managers unduly disregarding candidates’ accomplishments, letting excellent talent pass by that could have otherwise been an asset to their teams and the business.

Guaranteeing you don’t fall prey to attribution bias involves properly considering the reasons behind individuals’ backgrounds and accomplishments, as opposed to jumping to conclusions. In the workplace, this can mean analysing performance indicators, properly analysing an employee’s role in successful or unsuccessful projects and analysing a wide range of work examples.

Attractiveness Bias

Also known as beauty bias, attractiveness bias occurs when we view attractive people as being more competent, and both unattractive and very attractive people as being less competent, at their jobs.

This bias has a basis in evolutionary psychology, where more attractive individuals are viewed as more charismatic and persuasive, unattractive individuals seen to be lacking in these qualities, and very attractive individuals viewed negatively due to a perception they have succeeded in life due to their looks as opposed to their accomplishments.

To combat attractiveness bias, make sure that when hiring, promoting or managing your team, skills and accomplishments form the basis of your decision-making, not beauty standards.

Conformity Bias

Conformity bias is the pressure to we feel to act due to the actions of others, not our own independent thinking. Studied in 1951 by psychologist Solomon Asch’s famous study, the bias is due to our want to conform and please others around us.

This bias is a big problem in business settings, since it can lead to the formation of groupthink, where discussions become echo chambers of the same or similar views, or cultures where decisions aren’t properly critiqued. Due to these effects, conformity bias can lead to senior members of staff having undue influence over hiring, promotion and other business processes, and poor decision making impacting business performance.

To fight conformity bias, create and promote a workplace culture that allows staff to constructively voice their views and opinions, and that sees superiors actively listening to the concerns of their teams.

Confirmation Bias

If we make decisions or draw conclusions about people or situations that are based on our own experiences, beliefs or preconceptions, then we have fallen prey to confirmation bias. When we succumb to it, early interactions and experiences of others can go on to influence our lasting, long-term feelings towards them, regardless of their current actions or performance.

In the workplace, avoiding confirmation bias means giving individuals a second chance, as well as identifying and ignoring your in-built prejudices in order to give individuals a proper evaluation. In the realm of interviews, this also means adopting standardised questions that stop your biases from manifesting themselves as you quiz prospective hires.

Name bias

Name bias is when we treat people with similar names as ourselves preferably. Often taking place along racial and cultural lines, it can seriously hamper the prospects of minority individuals whose names differ from the group. In the USA, many studies have shown that individuals with African American sounding names (Dashawn and Tanisha, for example) discriminated against compared to those with Caucasian sounding names (Alison and Christopher, for instance).

In workplace settings, succumbing to name bias can result in a lack of diversity amongst employees, or see capable, talented individuals with minority names not offered promotions they otherwise deserve.

Overcoming name bias requires us to look past our initial reactions to someone’s name and assess their skills and personality instead. In recruitment, it can be overcome by removing candidates’ personal information before handing their CVs to managers, ensuring interviewees are selected based on their accomplishments.

Gender Bias

When we tend towards preferring one gender over another, we are exhibiting gender bias. Generally speaking, gender bias affects women far more than it does men, and can lead to both men and women hiring more male job candidates, and have an influence on the roles men and women are seen to be best at performing.

The workplace effects of gender bias are clear – more men in senior positions, hiring more men than women and for certain roles, resulting in a team marked by a lack of diversity, not the skills and accomplishments of its members.

As with name bias, overcoming gender bias requires CVs to be anonymised, on top of the establishment of diversity hiring goals to ensure that the gender mix of your business is more or less equal.

Ageism

Ageism is the discrimination of individuals based on their age. A common bias, a 2019 Hiscox survey found that 44% of workers knew someone that had been affected by age discrimination, and 36% felt their age prevented them from getting a job after they turned 40.

Based on stereotypical assumptions made about older people, such as that they are resistant to change or anti-technology, ageism can manifest itself in many areas of business, although the hiring and appraisal processes are most common. The effect on business can be severe – excluding the aged often means ignoring the most experienced hires.

To combat, anonymise job applications so that age is not shown, and look beyond colleagues’ ages to their skillsets and experience when promoting.

Perception bias

Perception bias happens when we treat individuals based on simplistic, often incorrect stereotypes and general assumptions, as opposed to reality. It can encompass a range of other biases, including age, gender and height, and as such has similar effects on businesses, excluding talent and reducing diversity.

To be ignored, perception bias requires individuals to be aware of their biases, which can be done by flipping bias when we are at risk of acting on it. As outlined in HR guru Kristen Pressner’s TEDx Talk, this involves swapping the form of bias between the two things we are comparing – the gender of two hires, say – and analysing how our brains react to the roles being switched. If their skills don’t match their gender, it’s highly likely we’re biased.

Height bias

Akin to attractiveness bias, height bias occurs when we treat taller people more favourably than others. Based in evolutionary psychology, where taller people are more likely seen as leaders, it can lead to shorter individuals being passed up in favour of taller team members or prospective hires, harming diversity in senior positions and the company at large. Plus, since women are generally shorter than men, it can reduce gender equality in a workplace.

Height bias requires us to be mindful of its in-built nature within our psyches and necessitates a conscious focus on paying attention to individuals’ specific accomplishments and qualities.

Gender Bias

When we tend towards preferring one gender over another, we are exhibiting gender bias. Generally speaking, gender bias affects women far more than it does men, and can lead to both men and women hiring more male job candidates, and have an influence on the roles men and women are seen to be best at performing.

The workplace effects of gender bias are clear – more men in senior positions, hiring more men than women and for certain roles, resulting in a team marked by a lack of diversity, not the skills and accomplishments of its members.

As with name bias, overcoming gender bias requires CVs to be anonymised, on top of the establishment of diversity hiring goals to ensure that the gender mix of your business is more or less equal.

Contrast Effect

The contrast effect is a bias that sees us comparing one thing against another, even when there are many other things to compare within the set.

Take recruitment; when presented with 30 CVs or interviews to analyse, we can end up comparing one with the next, omitting the rest from our calculus. One excellent interview can make the next interviewee seem particularly bad, even if the next applicant was far better than most of the others. On the contrary, a particularly poor interviewee can make a middling hire that follows appear excellent.

The effect of this on workplaces can be that excellent candidates get declined simply due to their place in the interview procedure, while in appraisals, good, solid staff can be refused promotions purely due to the timing of their meeting. To combat the contrast effect, create well-structured review processes that consider all hires or staff at the same time, not just some.

Halo Effect

This type of bias comes up often in our unconscious bias training sessions. The halo effect sees us believe all an individual’s attributes are exceptional after seeing they have a single exceptional attribute, such as their place of education, previous employer or personality.

Impacting interviews and reviews, the halo effect can result in generally ineffective individuals being hired or promoted due to a notable, but otherwise limited, success, or their mere presence in a highly regarded organisation. This comes at the expensive of other individuals who, despite appearing less exceptional at first, are just as, if not more skilled.

To avoid the halo effect, try to consider and compare all an individual’s characteristics, qualities and weaknesses in order to produce a well-rounded view.

Horns Effect

The horns effect occurs when we form a complete view of someone based on a single negative attribute. The opposite of the halo effect, the horns effect has similar impacts on business, excluding employees who may be generally excellent but who have done something potentially minor wrong, removing the benefit of the doubt. One way of exemplifying this bias is a person arriving at an organisation for a job interview. When they walk into the building, they do not to see an employee walking behind them and therefore fail to hold the door open. This person happens to be the person conducting the interview. And although the applicant did not even see them, their chances of getting the job have been skewed because the interviewer’s tainted judgement of that applicant.

Avoiding the horns effect requires us to not rush to conclusions when interviewing prospective hires and to use techniques such as blind interviewing and standardised interview questions.

What next?

Unconscious bias comes in many forms, and it can be hard to know which to tackle first, and how. If you’re keen for your colleagues to learn more about these biases (and exactly how and where they can arise in your organisation), consider a programme of unconscious bias training. Your team will learn how to understand and manage these forms of bias, along with which policies and procedures you can put in place to prevent systemic bias from taking place in your organisation. Find out more about EW Group’s leading unconscious bias training or contact our expert team today to discuss your business’ specific needs.

Tell us your requirements. We'll do the rest.

Yvonne Howard is a highly experienced Diversity and Inclusion Consultant with extensive experience in the transportation, construction, engineering and built environment sectors, as well as local government. Yvonne was the lead consultant for our Building an Inclusive Culture programme at British Land, where we trained all 250 members of staff. Yvonne has worked with other prominent EW Group clients, including Westfield, Ocado Technology, HS2 and Highways England. Elsewhere, Yvonne has expertly delivered workshops as part of our diversity mentoring programme for the BBC to address chronic under-representation of BAME staff at senior grades.

Diversity and inclusion training session, run by EW Group

Diversity and Inclusion Training

We build bespoke diversity and inclusion training courses in line with your company values and goals. Suitable for staff at all levels, across all sectors, they will develop your staff’s ability to apply inclusive principles to their work and overcome unconscious bias.

Read More
Unconscious bias training session with a group in training with actors

Unconscious Bias Training

EW Group are specialists in leading-edge unconscious bias training. We offer a range of in-person training courses, online e-learning modules and innovative actor-based workshops aimed at addressing unconscious bias in the workplace.

Read More