What is Unconscious Bias in the Workplace?

By EmployDiversity 


The majority of people agree that prejudice is wrong. However, all of us are capable of making unintentional prejudiced decisions. This occurs because of something called unconscious bias. Unconscious bias happens when we need to make a quick assessment about a situation or other people. The brain makes a quick judgement and sometimes those decisions are discriminatory.   


Unconscious Bias and Hiring

Unconscious bias has major implications for hiring. Hiring for diversity is a priority for many organizations, but when unconscious bias sneaks in, it taints the hiring process. As a result, fewer diverse individuals will be hired and the organization will be more homogeneous. Unconscious bias can be introduced into the hiring process in a number of ways. When defining the position requirements, consider what is a “must have” versus a “nice to have”. Employers may be losing out on women candidates who are less likely to apply unless they meet 100% of the criteria. The language used in the job description can also discourage or attract certain candidates. Using words like “aggressive”, “dominant”, or “assertive”, is more likely to attract men and discourage women from applying.


Unconscious Bias and Feedback

Unconscious bias can also be an issue when it comes to employee evaluations. Managers making decisions based on unconscious biases may critique men and women differently based on their own stereotypes.

For example, women are more likely to be negatively critiqued for being aggressive and their individual successes are more likely to be attributed to collaborative efforts. This type of unconscious bias can result in women being selected for supporting roles instead of leadership positions. Unconscious biases shape perceptions of abilities and this can result in women having less access to leadership roles, fewer opportunities for advancement, and less compensation.  

The Effect on the Workplace

Unconscious biases make us favour certain people or groups. This is extremely damaging to the diversity and equality of the workplace. If unconscious biases are not properly managed, they can result in poor decision making and potentially illegal discrimination.


The most common types of workplace bias are:

  • The tendency to like people similar to us (affinity bias)

  • The inclination to generalize a person and their actions as good because you like them (halo effect)

  • The inability to make an objective judgement because of stereotypes and assumptions held about certain groups (perception bias)

  • The tendency to seek information that validates pre-existing beliefs (confirmation bias)

  • The propensity of people to hold back their own thoughts and opinions out of a desire to be included in a group (groupthink)


Psychological studies show that unconscious biases are beyond our control, but they can be mitigated through awareness training. Awareness training helps employees understand and identify unconscious biases. More importantly, it teaches employees how to not let their unconscious biases influence their decision making. Identifying biases that already exist in a workplace, or in workplace policies and practices, helps employees and leaders understand how biases affect decision making, hiring, compensation, and culture. With this understanding, organizations can mitigate unconscious bias so staff can make better decisions than they would in more homogeneous contexts.