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Unconscious Bias: What It Is, And Why You Need To Be Aware Of It

By Jennifer Crump | Last updated: July 23, 2021
Key Takeaways

Unconscious bias can be a massive problem in the workplace — here's what you need to know.

Source: Jirapong Manustrong/iStock

There are reasons why people are often drawn to others who are most like them, and most of the time, we give it little thought. However, this unconscious bias can be a massive problem in the workplace.

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Unconscious bias manifests itself in assumptions, beliefs, prejudices or stereotypes about individuals or groups of people. These are also known as implicit biases and can cause us to make snap judgements made either in favor of or against things, people or groups. Everyone has unconscious biases, and they are often activated quickly, in a matter of seconds and without thought. You may not even be aware that you have them.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias often disadvantages people who are already disadvantaged and provides additional advantages to those who already have advantages. It can affect how we hire, make decisions and promote in the workplace. The result is that unconscious bias can negatively affect an employer's ability to hire and promote the best candidates. It can also hamper a business’s decision-making process and, inevitably, its bottom line.

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Unconscious bias can take many forms. It can influence perceptions based on age, gender, culture, language and even personal attributes such as body language or appearance. The good news is that although unconscious bias is persistent, it can also be eliminated if it’s recognized and dealt with.

The Halo Effect

The halo effect and its more negative-seeming counterpart, the horns effect, are equally destructive. The halo effect is unconscious bias that explains the tendency to assign positive qualities to physically attractive people. The attractiveness stereotype is one example of the halo effect. And, it’s also the reason that taller people tend to earn more than shorter people over their lifetime. You may not even be aware that you're assigning positive qualities to certain traits you perceive in an individual that have nothing to do with their appropriateness as a candidate.

The Horns Effect

Not surprisingly, the horns effect is the opposite of the halo effect. It causes people to assign negative traits to others based on existing biases and unfounded connections. It can include associating being out of shape with laziness or specific dress or hair styles as too unprofessional, too staid or even too slovenly.

The halo and horns effects are just two examples of how unconscious bias can manifest in the workplace and beyond. Like all unconscious biases, they rely on first impressions, which often prevent recruiters, interviewers and supervisors from providing accurate assessments in the workplace. These first impressions can be very deceiving and incredibly costly to companies.

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The Costs of Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias can permeate nearly every facet of a business, and it will become more of a critical issue as the future of work evolves. Unconscious bias can undermine essential diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts in the workplace. Even perceptions about flexible workplace options, such as remote work or flextime policies, can be associated with negative perceptions. Those who opt for these offerings can be perceived, consciously or unconsciously, as lazy or slackers who aren't pulling their weight in the company. Here is where unconscious bias may exist in your business and why you need to be aware of it.

Recruitment

If you hire on a gut feeling, you are probably exhibiting unconscious bias. This can be a serious issue if that unconscious bias causes you to hire people who are most like you. Unfortunately, this is most often the case, and it undermines efforts to diversify companies. A candidate’s picture, name or even their alma mater can influence a recruiter’s opinion of a candidate. This is a problem if it causes them to overlook more qualified candidates or hire candidates who are less qualified.

Hiring the wrong person for the job is incredibly costly and not just in terms of your DEI efforts. There are, however, ways to avoid unconscious bias in your recruitment process. Implement standardized interviews, work sample tests, and look for software or other analytical tools to apply structure and remove biases from your hiring process.

Retention

Unconscious bias also harms retention efforts. It can play out in many ways. For example, workers may feel they lack a voice, that they are being left behind in the promotion process, or they may disengage entirely, all of which can prove harmful to a company’s continued growth and profitability. In one survey, 33 per cent of employees who perceived bias at work felt alienated, and 75 per cent stated they were not proud to work for their companies. Almost half of these workers had looked for another job in the past six months, and another third of them planned to leave their current employers within the year.

Even more significantly, the negative impressions fostered by perceptions of bias can feed public perceptions of a company through social media or on recruitment websites such as Glassdoor. Again, training for supervisors and executives that helps them recognize their own implicit biases can help. So too, can DEI efforts that foster diversified leadership in a company.

Innovation

Studies suggest that unconscious bias adversely affects innovation. Those who perceive bias are 2.6 times more likely (34 per cent to 13 per cent) to say that they’ve withheld ideas and market solutions. However, it isn’t just that perceptions of unconscious bias cause workers to withhold innovative ideas — it also prevents others in the workplace from listening to these ideas. Unconscious bias makes people more resistant to change and new ideas. It can prevent innovation from being discussed and from being implemented. It holds people back, but most critically, it can hold a company back.

Bottom Line

Unconscious bias also has a profoundly negative effect on a company’s bottom line. It can drive up personnel costs in terms of both retention and recruitment. And, it can also relegate a company to the past and cause it to lose a competitive edge by stifling innovation.

Unconscious bias undermines DEI efforts in many ways, all of which can prove costly to your bottom line. Numerous studies have linked DEI to improved profitability. Executive teams with gender diversity, for example, were 21 per cent more likely to experience above-average profitability. In comparison, those with ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed their competition by as much as 38 per cent.

It's Not Easy — But It's Necessary

Tackling unconscious bias is not easy. It’s a huge challenge to address something most people are not even aware they have or are using. However, making sure your people are aware of both the effects and costs of unconscious bias and their own unconscious bias is a critical first step.

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Written by Jennifer Crump

Profile Picture of Jennifer Crump

Jennifer Crump is a former freelance journalist and author and now full-time content writer and strategist. She contributes to magazines and blogs throughout North America on issues related to business, training, financing and workplace safety.


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