Unconscious biases are assumptions and prejudgments about groups of people that exist at the unconscious level. These biases stem from a combination of our lived experiences, social conditioning, and our brain’s tendency to organize and categorize information to make quick decisions. Our biases enable us to form an opinion without having to dig up the facts. Our brains seek efficient processes to scan the environment and keep us safe. The process of developing biases serves that function. It is a fast way to fill in the blanks when we do not have all the information needed to form conclusions about groups of people.
As humans the process of developing our biases is a natural function of our brains. Our minds are an automatic association machine. In fact, it is as natural as breathing for us. Biases are a way of copying with a complex stressful everyday changing world. It is not possible to eliminate our biases, but it is important that we become aware of the biases we hold and learn how to reduce the effect they have on our actions.
In the workplace, unconscious bias can lead to discrimination, low representation, and exclusion of under-represented groups. The biases we hold can affect every organizational practice such as recruiting, hiring, performance evaluation, advancement opportunities, compensation, among others. Our biases can show up in many ways, including:
- Confirmation bias- when people look for or interpret information to support their views or stereotypes. Someone who thinks men are better than women might only notice male accomplishments, ignoring or discounting female accomplishments.
- The halo effect- when people think someone has more than one positive trait based on one characteristic they see in them. A typical example of this effect is when people assume someone is intelligent and successful if they see them as attractive.
- Stereotyping others with untrue, and often harmful, assumptions are made about people based on race, gender, age, or other attributes.
- Affinity bias- when people prefer others with similar backgrounds, education, or hobbies. One affinity bias in hiring practices is when an employer hires a candidate based not on their qualifications but on their shared alma mater.
- Anchoring bias- when people put too much weight on the first piece of information they get when choosing. Another hiring practice where this shows up is when an employer is presented with a candidate’s credentials. They might base their decision not to hire a candidate based on a lower-than-average grade point average, even if the other qualifications presented are more relevant to the position.
- Beauty bias -when people think beautiful people are more intelligent or deserve better treatment because of their looks. In the US, this can show up most often when workplace standards are built from Euro-centric standards of beauty and “presentability,” which disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in marginalized groups.
Based on the belief that as humans we all have biases the question we need to be asking ourselves isn’t do we have bias, but which ones are yours?
Individual strategies for uncovering and managing unconscious bias
Take the time to teach yourself about the various forms of implicit bias and how they appear in the workplace. Gather information through workshops, articles, and books, or seek advice from a mentor or coach.
Start a journal or work with an accountability partner to support your reflective practice. Scheduling time on your calendar to reflect every day or every week can be helpful in establishing an intentional reflection habit.
Request input from team members to understand how others experience your actions and choices. This can help identify unnoticed aspects and biases that are not immediately apparent.
Encourage colleagues and team members to share their stories, the more we know about each other the less we judge.
Regularly reflect on your actions and decisions, exploring how personal biases may have affected them. Don’t be afraid to admit when mistakes are made and own up to where biases lie. Doing so creates a culture of trust, accountability, and improvement. It also gives others permission to also openly talk about their areas of growth. We are all a work in progress, and being transparent about our journey to improve ourselves can inspire others to do the same.
Hold yourself accountable for steps and choices and be willing to give an honest apology when you make an error or act on prejudice. More importantly proceed with concrete action steps to demonstrate you learned and will do better next time. This will encourage a constructive culture of responsibility and steady improvement.
Organizational strategies for uncovering and managing unconscious bias
In our diversity, equity, and inclusion work with clients, we’ve seen firsthand how unconscious bias can harm team members and hinder company success. But there are strategies organizations can use to fight these biases and create a fair and inclusive workplace.
One important step in mitigating unconscious bias is to encourage leaders and managers to model inclusive behaviors. This can include creating opportunities for all team members to share their perspectives, listen actively, and be open to feedback. Set the standard for team members to collaborate and work together on projects. This can foster community and belonging and encourage team members to share their unique perspectives and ideas.
Another strategy is to educate team members to recognize and address unconscious bias. This can be done through workshops, seminars, or online courses. It is beneficial to help team members learn about the various types of bias, as well as individual and organizational mitigation strategies.
These learning opportunities can build self-awareness, establish common language, and make space for dialogue and reflection. Unconscious bias education is helpful, but it’s insufficient if not followed by an equity-focused effort.
It is also beneficial to establish affinity groups or employee resource groups (ERGs). These communities provide a safe space for team members to connect with others with similar backgrounds or experiences. ERGs enable team members to come together and build connections based on shared identities. These bolsters open communication and collaboration and as a result make team members more engaged, happy, and productive, thus improving team member retention.
Mitigating unconscious bias requires conscious actions. This effort must be goal oriented, long-term, and ongoing. Becoming aware of our biases can be an uncomfortable process, but it is an effective way to start building an inclusive culture.
Gilmara Vila Nova-Mitchell
Gilmara Vila Nova-Mitchell has been helping organizations and leaders become more effective and inclusive through her engaging diversity and inclusion professional learning sessions, leadership development programs, and equity & cultural proficiency coaching for almost two decades.
Gilmara has worked with HR managers, chief diversity officers, and other leaders to create more inclusive work environments. Gilmara has collaborated with organizations from the private and public sectors in various industries. Gilmara has supported organizations to develop strategic plans, create equity-driven monitoring tools, create inclusive cultures, and learn about equity-driven leadership.
Born in Brazil, Gilmara moved to the United States in 2001. She holds a Bachelor of Multicultural Education from FUMEC University (Brazil) and an MSE in School Counseling from Drake University. Gilmara has focused on her doctoral studies in Organizational Behavior with a focus on trust in the workplace.