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7 Most common unconscious biases in the workplace

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When you think about a car mechanic, you probably think of a man. And when you think about a nurse, you most likely picture a woman. This is an example of unconscious biases.

We all experience unconscious biases, and they affect our behavior, judgment, and decision-making.

In this post, we’ll talk more about:

  • What unconscious biases are,
  • How they impact our workplace,
  • Most common unconscious biases, and 
  • Tips on disrupting them.

What are unconscious biases?

Unconscious biases are unconscious negative associations with specific groups (women, people of color, elderly, LGBTQ+, etc.).

The unconscious biases we hold are influenced by:

  • Our personal experiences
  • Stereotypes, and 
  • Cultural context.

However, it’s important to know that unconscious biases usually don’t align with our beliefs. Having these biases doesn’t necessarily mean you want to actively discriminate against specific groups. 

But, it’s important to learn more about our biases to avoid having them cloud our judgment. 

How do unconscious biases impact our workplace?

US businesses have lost more than $5 million dollars in the last 5 years due to unfair treatment based on race and ethnicity, according to research. 

Therefore, it’s easy to see that unconscious biases negatively impact our workplaces.

Let’s see what other disadvantages they cause.

Disadvantage #1: Unconscious biases negatively affect employee engagement and retention

Employees who perceive negative biases are less engaged at work, according to the Disrupt bias, drive value” study

Furthermore, victims of bias are 3 times more likely to leave their company, so employee retention also suffers.

Disadvantage #2: Unconscious biases hinder workplace diversity

In the opinion of Dr. Liz Wilson, Founder of Include Inc. and a Ph.D. in organizational culture and behavior, biases are the biggest obstacle to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace:

Dr. Liz Wilson, Founder of Include Inc. and a Ph.D. in organizational culture and behavior

“Bias plays a significant role in exclusion and discrimination in the workplace, as it constantly affects our thinking and, consequently, has the potential to impact inclusive decision-making and actions. That means you need to always proactively seek to be conscious of your own bias, make inclusive decisions, take inclusive action, and demonstrate inclusive behaviors.”

Disadvantage #3: Unconscious biases create unfair disadvantages

Lastly, victims of bias are at an unfair disadvantage. 

For example, managers may overlook an employee for a promotion because of their unconscious bias. Or, a hiring manager may let their biases affect their hiring decisions and not hire the most competent person because they fit into a certain category.

Most common unconscious biases in the workplace

Let’s look at the most common unconscious biases in the workplace. 

Unconscious bias #1: Gender bias

Gender bias is an unconscious preference towards one gender due to deep beliefs about gender roles. 

The gender pay gap is a prominent example, with women earning 13% less than men in the same positions.

Furthermore, many associate leadership with men, as evidenced by a survey from the book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?, where 92% couldn’t name a famous female business leader, with 2% mentioning “Siri” or “Alexa.”

However, research suggests women make better leaders. Studies show they:

  • Have a more democratic leadership style, 
  • Elicit more respect, 
  • Communicate effectively, 
  • Mentor juniors well, 
  • Solve problems creatively, and 
  • Maintain objectivity.

Unconscious bias #2: Racial bias

Racial bias is an unconscious preference for one race over another

Racial bias doesn’t always mean the person is racist — they usually don’t intend to discriminate against specific races. However, racial bias still negatively impacts people of color.

Unconscious bias #3: Name bias

Due to name bias, White names on your resume will get you 50% more callbacks for interviews. 

If you’re unsure what are some typical “white” and “black” names, here are a few examples:

  • “White” names: Emily, Anne, Sara, Neil, Brett, Greg
  • “Black” names: Keisha, Lakisha, Latoya, Rasheed, Jamal, Darnell

The same study concluded that having a white-sounding name is equal to having 8 additional years of experience on your resume.

Unconscious bias #4: Age bias

Age bias usually affects older people, since people generally favor younger generations. However, some employers also discriminate against young people in the hiring process, because they unconsciously believe that younger people:

  • Lack work ethic and discipline,
  • Don’t have enough work experience, and
  • Need more training.

Unconscious bias #5: Appearance bias

Appearance bias implies that we unconsciously favor certain physical types or characteristics over others.

For example, we may favor thin women or tall men. In fact, according to the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, taller men are more likely to become leaders. 

Unconscious bias #6: LGBTQ+ bias

LGBTQ+ bias refers to negative beliefs about members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Thankfully, bias towards LGBTQ+ people has declined in previous years. This is probably related to the increased visibility and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people.

Unconscious bias #7: Disability bias

Another common bias is favoring able-bodied people over people with disabilities

For example, a hiring manager may not want to hire a disabled person because their bias tells them that the disabled person may need more sick days.

Tips on disrupting unconscious biases in the workplace

Now, let’s look at some ways you can combat these unconscious biases in the workplace.

Tip #1: Become more aware of biases

The first step to overcoming unconscious biases is to be aware of them. 

All of us have unconscious biases — it’s our brains’ way of taking shortcuts in thinking to save time and energy. But, if we stop and think about our biases and how they affect people around us, we can start identifying errors in our thinking and correcting them before they reach the surface.

Tip #2: Create more inclusive policies and practices

Organizations and companies can help combat biases by implementing proper diversity, equity, and inclusion policies.

Dr. Liz Wilson believes that inclusive practices are essential when fighting biases in the workplace:

Dr. Liz Wilson, Founder of Include Inc. and a Ph.D. in organizational culture and behavior

“Every way of working in your organization should be designed and implemented so as to result in an inclusive experience for both employees and customers. From team meetings to customer service, and every policy and procedure in between, you should be proactively seeking to identify potential barriers to inclusion in the ways you work and then fill the gaps with more inclusive practice.”

Tip #3: See every person as unique and of value

Fight the urge to put people into a ‘box’. Each person is unique and valuable, with their own experiences, thoughts, and needs. 

When you approach every person with the intention of understanding them for who they are, you can avoid having your biases dictate your relationships. 

Tip #4: Break stereotypes by exposing yourself to counterstereotypes

Exposure to counterstereotypes can reduce or even eliminate our unconscious biases.

For example, in a study on the Scully effect, 63% of women working in STEM reported that Dana Scully from the TV series X-Files served as their role model. 

This proves how impactful the power of exposure and representation can be.

Tip #5: Put yourself in someone else’s shoes

Learning to be more empathetic can reduce your unconscious bias. 

Try thinking about the other person’s perspective and how you would feel in their shoes. This can reduce the chance of your unconscious biases affecting others.

Tip #6: Consider “blind recruitment”

A strategy that hiring managers can use to minimize bias is “blind recruitment”. 

This entails removing names, ages, and other identifying information from resumes before reading them. “Blind recruitment” can help you avoid biases and hire based on competency.

Further reading

This is just a summary of an article previously published on the Pumble blog.

To learn more about unconscious biases, we recommend reading the full article: