Is Unconscious Bias Affecting You at Work? Here's What You Should Know


Diverse business meeting


Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
May 30, 2024 at 1:2PM UTC
In 2012, Ellen Pao filed a gender discrimination suit against the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. In her lawsuit, she alleged that the firm had terminated her abruptly in retaliation for an affair with a junior partner, as well as other behaviors for which she had been criticized and male colleagues had been praised. The suit shed light on already prevalent pervasive biases and gender discrimination throughout Silicon Valley, where men greatly outnumber women. In fact, just 11 percent of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies are held by women according to The Observer.
Unconscious biases negatively impact diversity across nearly every industry, and can result in discrimination against certain races, ethnic groups, religions, sexual orientations, ages, and other minorities.

What is unconscious bias?

The two major types of biases are conscious and unconscious bias. While both types result in stereotypes about and prejudices against a certain group or groups of people, conscious bias is, as it sounds, a belief that is explicit, meaning the individual is aware of her bias, while an unconscious bias is implicit, meaning the individual’s belief is outside of her conscious awareness.
Unconscious biases may be—and often are—in conflict with an individual’s values and beliefs. Behavior that results from unconscious bias generally doesn’t stem from a place of ill intent. It’s something that’s been bred in us—yes, most, if not all of us—over years of repeated exposure to certain phrases, social norms, media depictions, and other influences.
Unfortunately, because we may be unaware of our stereotypes and prejudices, they can affect our actions and decisions in and out of the workplace. Unconscious biases can come into play in numerous business scenarios: hiring decisions, promotions, meetings (in terms of to whom you’re listening and with whom you’re agreeing), and many other situations.

What are the types of unconscious bias?

There are many types of unconscious biases, which makes the issue all the more complex and difficult to overcome.
  • Conformity bias leads an individual to replace her own opinion in favor of that of the larger group.
  • Confirmation bias is the inclination to look for and focus on characteristics that confirm an individual’s preconceptions.
  • Affinity bias is based on the notion that we want to surround ourselves with people like us.
  • Halo effect occurs when we focus on a particular positive fact about a person to the point at which we ignore other, potentially negative characteristics about her.
  • Horns or hoof effect is the opposite of the halo effect: We let one perceived negative attribute of a person cloud our judgement about the rest of her characteristics.

How can we address unconscious bias in the workplace?

Unconscious bias can affect everyone. From hiring practices to retention efforts to 
As of late, some employers are attempting to tackle bias in the workplace head on. One method is unconscious bias training. While this training remains popular, there’s some question as to its efficacy, because the practice seems to have little effect on increasing diversity in workplaces. In fact, the practice can even be harmful, since evidence demonstrating that people rely on stereotypes can perpetuate and normalize the very stereotypes organizations are trying to combat.
However, if done well, unconscious bias training can have a positive effect on workplace culture. According to Joelle Emerson of Paradigm, striking a balance between avoiding being overly defensive about biases—explaining that these behaviors don’t occur because we’re bad people—and communicating the importance of managing our biases is one key practice in training that can lead to a more inclusive workplace. In the Harvard Business Review, she also writes that structuring trainings around specific workplace behaviors, rather than more global research, and pairing theory with strategies for managing biases yielded stronger results at Paradigm. 
Another tool, the Implicit Association Test, helps reveal people’s implicit biases by measuring associations between concepts in their minds. The idea is that recognizing our own perceptions will better enable us to address them. Critics have voiced concerns about the test, arguing that the IAT isn’t very reliable and doesn’t present a strong enough link between unconscious bias and behavior. The test needs more research, but could raise awareness about the need for recognizing and addressing our behaviors.

What next?

It's clear that in order to address implicit biases and promote a culture of diversity an inclusion, employers need to prioritize identifying how these biases and behaviors are impacting their workplaces and help their employees understand and recognize how they influence their decision-making processes. Awareness is the first step to creating and embracing a new mindset.

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