What is unconscious bias in the workplace? How it’s defined and how to stop it

Unconscious Bias in the workplace discussion

What is unconscious bias in the workplace and where does it come from? In this article, we explore how unconscious bias negatively affects work culture and tips for combatting its effects.

If you want to increase equality, diversity, and inclusion within your workforces, you may have heard of what is increasingly being seen as a crucial reason why diverse groups of people have different lived professional experiences: unconscious bias in the workplace.

In this guide, we take an in-depth look into what unconscious bias is, where it comes from, and how it affects workplaces, then show you exactly how you can stop it from having a negative effect on your workplace.


What is unconscious bias? A simple definition

Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, is what happens when we act on subconscious, deeply ingrained biases, stereotypes, and attitudes formed from our inherent human cognition, experiences, upbringing, and environment.

If you act on your gut instincts, kneejerk reactions, or assumptions, there’s a chance you’re opening yourself up to unconscious bias. This can mean people affected by your actions might be unfairly discriminated against or favored without you even realizing, even if you don’t believe in stereotypes. It might be in the form of unconscious gender or racial bias, or a range of other types of bias.

Unconscious biases are different to conscious (or explicit) biases, which are intentionally discriminative. We are fully aware of these and how they influence our decision-making, which is why they’re outlawed in the workplace by laws like the Equality Act 2010.


What causes unconscious bias?

People are naturally biased. Even when we intend to be completely fair, our brains have a hard time remaining impartial.

Some research, such as that by social cognition researcher Gordon Moskowitz, indicates our brains naturally use bias to subconsciously pursue our goals.

Other studies, such as Perry Hinton’s 2017 work, state that it is due to our inherent social cognition skills; that unconscious biases are the mind’s way of automatically making associations between two concepts.

Looked at this way, they’re helpful mental shortcuts, allowing us to process information faster through prediction. It’s for this reason we instinctively place people into categories using criteria such as skin color, weight, age, gender, accent, education, sexuality, or status.

This categorizing saves our brain the time and effort of absorbing and processing information, letting us use our mental resources elsewhere.

Sadly, the same process can also affect our behavior in undesirable ways, preventing us acting in our own best interests or those of the group. Categorizing people can lead us to make untrue assumptions about them which make us treat them differently. At best this can cause strained relationships, at worst, injustices.

For businesses, there’s a clear reason to challenge unconscious bias: if we act on or experience unconscious bias in the workplace, as well as the negatives above, it also means that we are prevented from acting in the best interests of the business.

How does unconscious bias affect people in the workplace?

Research into unconscious bias in the workplace has shown time and again that none of us are immune to it. It comes in many scientific forms – for examples and the research backing them, see our guide on the different types of unconscious bias.

So, back in the office, how does implicit bias work?

Implicit gender bias in the workplace

A 2022 global study by BCG found that, for every $1 of investment raised, women-led startups generate $0.78 in revenue, compared to $0.31 for male-run startups. Similarly, First Round Capital found that female-led companies it had funded performed 63% better than their all-male counterparts. Despite this, according to Crunchbase, female founders received only 2.3% of VC funding in 2020.

Gender bias also extends to the recruitment process. In one study, a CV was considered by different recruiting managers. The CV was identical except for the fact that one had the name John at the top and the other had the name Jennifer. The managers – men and women – overwhelmingly decided to offer the job to John. They also were happy paying him a higher average starting salary and were more likely to mentor him. That’s despite Jennifer’s CV being identical.


Unconscious racial bias

Similar research from the British Academy in 2019 showed that the same was true for names. In this instance, minority ethnic applicants and white applicants with non-English names have to send on average 60% more applications to get a positive response from an employer than a white person of British origin.

People of Pakistani origin had to make 70% more applications, while candidates of Nigerian and Middle Eastern or North African origin had to send 80 and 90% more applications respectively.

Moreover, a 2019 experiment by Stanford University social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt revealed that a group of undergraduate students more quickly associated images of crime-related objects, such as guns and knives, with Black people than White people. The experiment illustrated not only the power of unconscious biases, but also the depth of the stereotypic association people have between blackness and crime — an association that Eberhardt has studied for nearly 20 years.


Unconscious stereotyping of status

Class and status are also affected. Research by KPMG in 2022 found that workers within the company from lower socio-economic backgrounds took on average 19% longer to progress to the next grade when compared to those from higher socio-economic backgrounds.


How can we combat unconscious bias in the workplace?

Fortunately, there is a lot we can do to combat unconscious bias in the workplace.

1. Accept unconscious bias exists and question assumptions

When EW Group trains individuals on how to challenge unconscious bias at work, the first step is to acknowledge that unconscious bias exists and that we all have preconceptions about people which we cannot control.

When you ask most people to justify a decision or choice they made, they will have an explanation, but it’s often not the whole truth. All of us are trained to rationalize decisions that have been made by our subconscious without any logical input, even if they are at odds with our conscious beliefs. Few people get out of bed in the morning planning to treat people unfairly or unequally, but the results of numerous scientific studies prove that we do.

That means, to overcome the bias that’s built into our brains, we need to question our beliefs and decisions, even when they ‘feel’ right.

2. Slow down your decision-making

You are most susceptible to making a biased decision when you are interacting with other people. In any conversation with your direct reports or colleagues, you are at risk of making assumptions, jumping to conclusions, or reverting to your gut instincts.

One of the interesting things about unconscious bias at work is that if you’re interacting with other people and you’re also under pressure, then the likelihood of being governed by your biases increases.

We can process around 40 things per second consciously – this rises to 11 million unconsciously. If you’re having to fill in the blanks due to lack of information, or at the other extreme, you have information overload then again, the impact of bias is more pronounced.

3. Combat bias in processes and strategies

Changing the way your workplace operates is a surefire way to ensure unconscious biases aren’t able to affect staff or anyone interacting with the business, such as applicants or customers.

It involves analyzing all the different steps of your processes and plans. In doing so, you can work out how bias might infiltrate actions, such as decision-making or day-to-day work, and how they will likely affect people.

From there, you can gold-plate your business’ approach to ensure it’s free from bias. That might mean blind recruitment processes, gender-neutral job ads, training your staff, and making your workforce more representative.

View our guide on eight steps to inclusive recruitment in the workplace for an example of how to combat office implicit bias.

Further unconscious bias resources

There are a whole host of resources on our site to help you combat unconscious bias in the workplace:

Unconscious bias has the potential to seriously affect the way companies work, but there are plenty of actions you can start doing today to stop it from taking hold in your place of work. Contact our experts today to find out how we can help.

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