Identifying and Counteracting Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Posted in Employee Experience

You may not like hearing this, but you are biased.

In fact, we all are. It’s how we’re hard-wired. Biases are one of our oldest human brain patterns – cognitive shortcuts that evolved to keep us safe. They are our brain’s way of helping us make quick, potentially life-saving decisions based purely on pattern recognition. In an instant, we can observe and think: shaggy coat, big tusks – run! And as a survival mechanism, bias has no doubt kept us from being trampled by many a wooly mammoth.

That said, there aren’t many mastodons in today’s workplaces, and the old cognitive shortcuts more often lead us astray – those quick leaps of intuition now result in poor decisions and unfair snap judgments about age, gender, and ethnicity that are harmful to inclusive hiring and workforce equity.

In this blog, we will break down some of the most dangerous unconscious biases that can creep up in the workplace, and propose a few strategies to mitigate them – and even use them – from your employee onboarding platform to your employee communications.

What Is an Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious biases are shortcuts we use to process information and make decisions quickly. To us, they may feel like a “gut feeling.” They are rooted in our experiences, background, and societal stereotypes, and are different from conscious bias because they operate below the level of conscious thought, influencing our behavior in subtle, significant ways that we aren’t even aware of – and might be horrified to discover.

Common Unconscious Biases Lurking in Your Workplace

Like malware, these biases often go unnoticed, but influence our decisions, feedback, and perceptions of colleagues, affecting hiring, team management, and recognition processes.

There are dozens of cognitive biases that psychologists have identified, but we’ve pulled out a few that we think are particularly concerning in the workplace.

Here’s an expanded look at some of those key biases and their impact:

Affinity Bias

This bias occurs when we gravitate towards people who are most like us in appearance, background, or interests. For instance, a hiring manager may favor a candidate who graduated from the same college or shares a hobby. This can lead to a homogeneous workplace, stifling diversity and innovation.

Confirmation Bias

Here, we subconsciously seek out or give undue weight to information that aligns with our existing beliefs. A manager might overlook an employee’s shortcomings while focusing on their strengths, simply because they have a preconceived positive opinion of them. This bias can lead to skewed evaluations or 9-box grid assessments, and missed opportunities for improvement.

Gender Bias (Sexism)

Making assumptions based on an individual’s gender.Often manifested in assumptions about roles or capabilities based on gender, these biases can lead to unequal opportunities and pay. For example, assuming that women are less suited for leadership roles leads to fewer promotions for qualified female employees, creating gender disparities at higher levels.

Age Bias (Ageism)

Ageism involves prejudices against individuals based on their age – often impacting older employees. A common workplace example is assuming older workers are less adept with technology. This can lead to underutilization of experienced staff and can create a divide between different age groups. In our 2023 research, Enboarder found that nearly one-third of baby boomers don’t participate in engagement activities at work – and 1 in 4 don’t have strong work friendships – something that probably only compounds this disconnect.

Name Bias

Name bias involves forming opinions about someone based on their name, particularly if it sounds foreign or unusual or if there appears to be a gender mismatch. A recruiter might unconsciously prefer candidates with familiar-sounding names, leading to a less diverse workforce and perpetuating cultural stereotypes.

Halo Effect /Horns Effect

This bias is when a single positive or negative trait or accomplishment colors our overall perception of a person. For example, an employee’s past success might lead a manager to overlook their current underperformance, potentially harming team efficiency and morale – or a particularly attractive candidate might encourage hiring managers to ascribe to them other positive traits, such as honesty or productiveness.

Status Quo Bias

Here, there’s a preference for the current state of affairs. An organization might resist adopting new technologies or processes, even if they’re more efficient, simply because “that’s how things have always been done.” This can hinder progress and innovation.

Group Attribution Bias

This bias involves stereotyping an individual based on their group identity. For instance, attributing a team’s failure to the incompetence of its leader without considering individual contributions can create an unfair and demotivating work environment.

Anchoring Bias

In this bias, initial information heavily influences decisions and perceptions. If a project’s first outcome is negative, it might color a manager’s view of the entire project, leading to premature conclusions and potentially unfair judgments.

Selective Attention Bias

This occurs when we focus on aspects that confirm our existing beliefs while ignoring contradictory information. A manager might only notice times when a late employee arrives late, ignoring their otherwise exemplary performance, leading to biased performance reviews.

Bandwagon Effect

This conformity bias leads us to align our beliefs and behaviors with those of a larger group or influential people. In a workplace, this might mean adopting popular but ineffective practices or ideas, stifling individual creativity and critical thinking.

Narrative Fallacy

Humans tend to create stories or patterns from unrelated events. A team might attribute their success to a particular strategy without considering other factors, potentially leading to overconfidence and future missteps.

Mere-exposure Effect

When we develop a preference for familiar things, it can lead to resistance to change. Employees might prefer outdated software they’re familiar with over more efficient alternatives, for example, impacting productivity.

Curse of Knowledge Bias

This occurs when someone with more knowledge assumes others have the same background and understanding. For instance, a manager might use technical jargon with a new employee, leading to miscommunication and confusion.

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

Focusing on trivial matters while ignoring significant ones. For example, a team might spend hours deliberating the color of a product while neglecting critical design flaws.

Normalcy Bias

Underestimating the likelihood or impact of a disaster, such as ignoring signs of market downturns, can lead to a lack of preparedness and significant losses.

False Consensus Effect

Overestimating how much others share our beliefs can lead to groupthink and a lack of diverse perspectives in decision-making, limiting innovation and adaptability.

unconscious bias in the workplace

Proactive Measures to Reduce Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Knowing about these biases is one thing, but if they are so ingrained, is there anything organizational leaders can really do about them? The answer is yes. From reshaping our hiring processes to reframing our leadership training, there are tangible steps we can take to minimize the impact of unconscious bias.

To build a more equitable work environment, awareness is the first step. Understand that biases exist and can influence decisions and interactions. Implement training programs and encourage open discussions about biases. Regularly review company policies and procedures to ensure they don’t perpetuate biases. Use data to identify and address potential areas of bias in hiring, promotions, and performance evaluations

An equitable work environment is one where every employee feels valued, respected, and has equal opportunities to grow. This involves creating a culture that actively seeks to understand and mitigate biases, promotes diversity and inclusivity, and values the unique contributions of every individual.

Let’s explore some proactive measures that can help us chip away at these biases, one step at a time.

Bias Awareness Training

Educate your team about different types of biases and how they manifest in the workplace.

Diverse Hiring Panels

Having a variety of perspectives in the hiring process can counteract individual biases.

Blind Recruitment Practices

Removing identifiable information from resumes helps to focus on skills and qualifications.

Inclusive Leadership Training

Equip leaders with the tools to recognize and counteract biases in their decision-making.

Mentorship Programs

Pairing employees from different backgrounds can foster understanding and break down stereotypes.

Fostering an Equitable Work Environment

Creating human connections in the workplace can be a powerful antidote to many unconscious biases.

For instance, mentoring programs pair individuals from different backgrounds or age groups, directly challenging ageism and affinity bias by fostering mutual understanding and respect. Encouraging friendships at work can break down the barriers created by biases like the group attribution error – because getting to know colleagues on a personal level helps dispel stereotypes. Open lines of connection can also prevent the halo effect, as they provide a more realistic holistic view of people – beyond initial impressions or single traits.

A consistent stream of communication in trusted channels is similarly powerful in diffusing biases such as the status quo bias, anchoring bias, and normalcy bias. When we elevate important information above the noise we can point employees to new ideas, data, and perspectives that challenge the comfort of the status quo and encourage adaptability.

For example, sharing success stories of innovative projects will counter the anchoring bias by providing fresh reference points. Transparent communication about organizational changes could help combat the normalcy bias by keeping employees informed and prepared for potential shifts.

Believe it or not, biases can also help you to achieve this. By understanding the shortcuts our brains take, we can better design communications and processes that put our biases to work, using them to highlight important information, enhance team cohesion, and promote inclusivity.

Here are five biases you can use for good – fostering human connections that transcend our unconscious prejudices:

  1. Rhyme as Reason Bias: In this bias, people are more likely to remember things if they rhyme! You can use it by creating memorable and catchy phrases to promote initiatives. A rhyme a day keeps confusion at bay!
  2. Spacing Effect: In this bias, repeating and sharing information incrementally over time will make it more memorable. You can use it by implementing continuous and spaced-out workflows and communications for lasting impact.
  3. Recency Bias and Modality Effect: In these biases, people tend to over-emphasize the information they heard most recently. You can leverage it by emphasizing your key points at the end of meetings – or reminding people of important information last – for better retention and recall.
  4. Bandwagon Effect: Humans form groups, and our natural tendency is to follow the herd. To get your teams rolling with organizational changes and fighting conscious and unconscious bias, encourage key influencers to share their perspectives. Their influence can help others move in the right direction, too.
  5. Affinity Bias: Yes, even the dreaded in-group bias can work for you – when you make everyone part of the group! Connect people to one another in a more human way to make them feel they are included, and they will extend more understanding and empathy to one another.

Creating a workplace where everyone feels valued and understood isn’t just a nice-to-have; it’s table stakes in today’s workplaces.

By focusing on sharing information, equitable practices, and fostering an open culture, organizations can soften the negative effects of biases and build a more equitable and dynamic workplace. And getting there is about more than just policies and programs – it’s about nurturing an environment where every voice is heard, and every person is seen.

Enboarder can help foster the kind of working environment where employees are aware of and committed to removing bias – and offers supportive tools that ensure that every employee feels connected, valued, and treated fairly.

Contact us today for a tour of the platform – or drop in on our webinar, From Stress to Success, which unpacks the power of human connection in creating successful, less biased talent and onboarding!

Become an Enboarder insider!