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5 types of unconscious bias in workplace to watch out for

Ajay Ruhela

Last Updated: 21 February 2023

In this article:

Don't do this if you wish to create a culture of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

You must have seen the news recently. Abhijit Banerjee won the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, along with Esther Duflo (who happens to be Banerjee's wife) and Michael Kremer. Notice some of the news headlines I came across.  

photos of newspapers showing what not to do when bringing about diversity and inclusion in the workplace

While you would clearly see the sexist overtones and pervasive gender bias in mass media, reducing Esther Duflo to just “his wife”, you may not realize it’s just one of the biases we have in place and we constantly encounter these in our home, workplace, and society. I usually put society and workplace on the same pedestal because workplaces are essentially microcosmic societies ⁠— as complex, intricate and nuanced as the world we live in with similar problems and possibilities if not the same. 

The reason I am writing about these biases are growing workplace researches that are highlighting diversity and inclusion in the workplace as a key competitive advantage for an organization with links to financial performance and innovation. While a lot of progressive organizations are taking conscious measures to improve diversity in their workforce and inclusion, one thing I believe can significantly move the needle would be “to get conscious about unconscious bias” in the workplace. Let’s discuss what these biases are and what can be done about them.

An average adult makes 35000 conscious decisions every day. Unconscious bias is the result of learned patterns and observations over time with brain taking in, processing, and tagging information for decision-making; social stereotypes about certain groups of people (our ‘people’ categories) that are unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal, and have the ability to influence behavior.

Here're my top 3 on unconscious bias

  • It is pervasive. Everyone possesses them, even people who are trained to be more objective (researchers, scientists, judges).
  • It is a learned stereotype. The best way to reduce unconscious bias is to create awareness for it and make those contextual day-to-day decisions (from the 35000) mindfully.
  • It can be a major setback for a diverse and inclusive workplace. According to McKinsey's Delivering Through Diversity report, diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, and culture, particularly within executive teams, is still correlated to financial performance across many countries. Yet they also show a continued neglect of diversity across organisations. A Catalyst study found that companies with more women in executive positions have a 34% higher return to shareholders than those that do not. 

Let me list down some famous unconscious biases (not an exhaustive list, maybe my personal 5 to get you started on the path) before we move on to the measures organisations can take to safeguard decisions resulting from such biases...

1. Affinity Bias (AfB)

When you unconsciously prefer people who share qualities with you or someone you like.

Comic that shows the opposite of diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Where do you watch-out for AfB?

Recruitment, Promotion/Appraisal, Succession-planning  

Which can lead to?

Nepotism, Wrong fitment

2. Attribution Bias (AtB) 

It refers to how you perceive your actions and those of others. It stems from our brain’s flawed ability to assess the reasons for certain behaviours – particularly those that lead to success and failure. Here’s an example of the famous AtB — self serving bias. 

funny comic showing diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Where to watch-out for AtB? 

Team dynamics, Leadership malfunctioning, Performance appraisals

Which can lead to...? 

Low psychological safety, lack of innovation, people's behavior making the way in the hierarchy and not performance

3. Beauty Bias (BB)

We all unconsciously notice people’s appearances and associate it with certain personality traits (conditioning by society, media, movies, etc.). Beauty bias is associated with our visual association of traits like professionalism and self awareness.

Screenshot 2019-10-30 at 7.29.01 PM

Where can you watch-out for BB ?

Recruitment, Promotion/Appraisal, Succession-planning  

Which can lead to...? 

Nepotism, Wrong fittment, Lack of fairness, Lack of trust in the system and organization

4. Conformity Bias

As they say in the school of biases, “unanimous view is less likely to come from a place of bias”. However, you shouldn’t let it prevent you from voicing your opinions and views.

Picture of a group of people about diversity and inclusion in the workplace
Where can you watch-out for C1B?  

At all levels of the organization

Which can lead to...? 

Alienation, lack of transparency, bad decision-making, group-think, leadership malfunctioning

5. Halo & Horns Effect

Halo: when we focus on one particularly great feature about a person and pretty much forget about everything else.

Screenshot 2019-10-30 at 7.36.02 PM

Horns: when we focus on one particularly negative feature about a person and pretty much ignore the 10 good qualities they have to offer. Since I had the dark lord for Halo, well here goes nothing.

Unconscious biases can severely harm the organization’s performance and climate. For the HR organization, it has an impact on key HR processes (recruitment, performance appraisal, talent management, D&I, engagement, and more) and the complete employee lifecycle. Here’s a list of the top 3 things (which can easily be translated to 30, but we’re dealing with a vast spectrum of biases) organizations can do to keep a tap on unconscious bias in the workplace: 

  • Create awareness of stereotypes we want to let go of. Improve your organisation’s bias literacy by running campaigns, programs, and so on. More importantly, help individuals identify instances where these biases may run strong (a recruiter shouldn’t immediately dismiss a 40 something walking in for an entry level job)

  • Create guidelines and processes to systematically tackle certain biases. Promotion process should strictly be based on performance, blind recruitment to remove any and all identification details from your candidates' resumes and applications 
  • Train your workforce on unconscious bias. Google has put about 60,000 employees through a 90-minute unconscious bias training program. The United States Department of Justice has trained 28,000 employees on techniques to combat implicit bias. Some of the popular training methodologies that can be customised and localised for your workplace:
    1. Counter-stereotype 
    2. Perspective-taking
    3. Mindfulness and kindness

Lastly, don’t be this guy if you want to create a culture of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Screenshot 2019-10-30 at 7.41.50 PM

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