What is Unconscious Bias in the Workplace?

What is unconscious bias at work

Unconscious bias in the workplace occurs when we need to make decisions and judgements quickly. We are not making conscious decisions which are well thought through, taking all factors into account.

We draw on our personal experiences. This means there is a natural bias towards views and opinions which fit with the world view we are most familiar and comfortable with. By doing this unconsciously, there is no malicious intent. We are often unaware that we have done it, and of its impact and implications.

An easy exercise you can do to highlight this is to observe a group of strangers. When given the choice of where and by whom to sit, chances are individuals will pick people who are similar to them in ethnicity, gender, age etc.

Types of Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias can present itself in numerous ways. When considering what unconscious bias is in the workplace, it is important to consider them:

  • Affinity bias – we are more likely to favour people who are like us.
  • Halo effect – the tendency to believe that a person is capable and skilled simply because you like them.
  • Perception bias – believing something about an entire group of people based on stereotypes and assumptions.
  • Confirmation bias – finding reasons and ways to confirm stereotypes and assumptions about a group of people.
  • Group think – trying too hard to fit into a group or culture. Agreeing with thoughts and opinions without truly sharing them. This results in loss of diversity and creativity.

If you consider these types of bias and test yourself it is likely unconscious bias is something you have been guilty of at one time or another. In some ways unconscious bias can be harmless with no lasting negative impact but it can also be enormously damaging, especially in the workplace. McKinsey’s Delivering Through Diversity report[1] says that “gender, ethnic and cultural diversity, particularly within executive teams, continue to be correlated to financial performance across multiple countries worldwide.” In other words, greater ethnic, gender and cultural diversity within a company or business increases profitability and success.

How can Unconscious Bias Impact a Workplace?

The following example highlights how bias can impact the workplace:

Your company has recruited a new team to create and develop a new product. At the interview stage a group of young white men of similar backgrounds, skills and abilities were successful. They reminded the recruiters of themselves. This has resulted in a group who are very similar. Whilst this may seem sensible, it actually results in a loss of diversity and a narrow spectrum of thinking and ideas.

Unconscious bias holds on to stereotypes and will disregard anyone who fits into these groups to the detriment of all.

It is therefore vital that training is undertaken to understand it fully and ensure it does not impact negatively on recruitment and in the workplace.

You can view our Unconscious Bias online training course here.


[1]https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/business%20functions/organization/our%20insights/delivering%20through%20diversity/delivering-through-diversity_full-report.ashx