Insights for Organisations

How to Tackle Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Paul Brown
04.10.23

In today’s dynamic and interconnected workplace, the pursuit of diversity, equity, and inclusion has never been more crucial. Yet, lurking beneath the surface of our daily interactions and decisions lies a formidable foe: unconscious bias. These subtle, often hidden prejudices can shape our perceptions, influence our actions, and ultimately, undermine the very ideals we strive for in our workplaces.

Join us as we explore the origins of these implicit biases in the workplace, shed light on their impacts, and most importantly, unveil strategies to foster a workplace that champions fairness, inclusivity, and the full potential of all its members.

What’s in this article?

What is unconscious bias in the workplace?

Unconscious bias in the workplace, also known as implicit bias, refers to the automatic and often unintentional attitudes, beliefs, stereotypes, or prejudices that individuals hold towards certain groups of people. These biases can influence decision-making, behavior, and interactions with colleagues, subordinates, or customers, often in a way that is unfair or discriminatory.

What are the causes of unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias has multiple causes rooted in psychological, societal, and cognitive factors. It emerges from the socialization and cultural conditioning individuals undergo, absorbing stereotypes and norms from their surroundings. Cognitive processes that involve categorization and association contribute to bias formation.

The lack of conscious awareness of these biases, combined with confirmation bias and in-group favoritism, reinforces them over time. Media influence and systemic factors can also play a role in shaping unconscious biases. Understanding these causes is essential for addressing and mitigating the impact of unconscious bias through education, awareness, and inclusive practices.

Why should HR leaders care about unconscious bias in the workplace?

Surveys from Deloitte reveal that a shocking 60% of respondents believe their workplace is biased, with 39% saying they experience this bias at least once a month. The same study shows that these biases are having a harmful impact on workplace performance with 68% stating that the bias they experience or witness has a negative impact on their productivity.

This shows that HR leaders should not only care about unconscious bias in the workplace because it impacts legal compliance, but also their diversity and inclusion efforts, and the business’ bottom line. Addressing bias is essential to attract and retain talent, boost employee morale and productivity, enhance innovation, maintain a positive brand reputation, and fulfill ethical and social responsibilities. By actively addressing unconscious bias, HR leaders can create a fair, inclusive, and competitive work environment that aligns with legal requirements and strategic organizational goals.

Examples of unconscious or implicit bias in the workplace

Unconscious bias can be found in many workplace situations, including:

Hiring and recruitment bias

Hiring managers may unconsciously favor candidates who share similar backgrounds, experiences, or interests with them, which is also known as affinity bias. Likewise, interviewers may seek out information that confirms their initial impression of a candidate, leading to a biased evaluation. This is known as confirmation bias. Moreover, resumes with names that are perceived as ethnically or racially different may be unconsciously rated lower than those with more familiar names. See our top tips for improving diversity in recruitment.

Performance evaluation bias

Leniency bias involves managers giving higher performance ratings to employees who are similar to them in terms of gender, race, or personality. Similarly, stereotypes about certain groups may influence performance appraisals, resulting in lower expectations or harsher critiques.

Promotion bias

Managers might more readily promote employees they see regularly or have recently interacted with, overlooking the achievements of those who work remotely or in different locations. This can be referred to as availability bias. People may also unconsciously favor employees who are part of their social or professional networks.

Communication bias

Employees may unknowingly engage in microaggressions, such as making insensitive comments or using biased language, which can create a hostile work environment for marginalized groups. This could involve individuals unconsciously interrupting or underestimating the contributions of colleagues from underrepresented groups during meetings or discussions.

Salary and compensation bias

Unconscious bias can lead to disparities in salaries, with women often earning less than their male counterparts for similar roles and responsibilities. Similar to the gender pay gap, racial bias can contribute to unequal compensation among employees, leading to a racial pay gap. Learn more about racial bias and discrimination at work.

Assigning tasks and projects

Managers may assign high-visibility projects to employees who are more like them, excluding others from growth opportunities. Unconscious bias may lead to the assumption that certain roles or tasks are more suitable for specific genders or ethnicities.

Customer bias

Employees might assume customer preferences based on their own biases, potentially affecting customer service and sales decisions. This can lead to prejudice in customer interactions.

Team dynamics

Employees from underrepresented groups may be seen as tokens or representatives rather than valued team members. Alternatively, unconscious bias can lead to social exclusion within teams, making it challenging for some individuals to participate fully.

10 Steps to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace

Here are ten steps businesses can take to tackle unconscious bias in their workplace:

  1. Educate employees
  2. Review and revise policies
  3. Diverse hiring panels
  4. Objective criteria
  5. Collect and analyze data
  6. Inclusive leadership
  7. Diversity and inclusion programs
  8. Anonymous feedback mechanisms
  9. Regular check-ins
  10. Promote transparency

1. Educate employees

Provide training and workshops on unconscious bias awareness. Make sure all employees understand what unconscious bias is and how it can affect decision-making.

2. Review and revise policies

Assess existing policies and procedures to identify potential biases. Modify policies and procedures to ensure they are fair and inclusive. For example, revise recruitment and promotion processes to minimize bias.

3. Diverse hiring panels

 When conducting interviews and making hiring decisions, involve a diverse panel of interviewers to reduce the impact of bias and promote diverse perspectives.

4. Objective criteria

Establish clear, objective criteria for evaluating performance, promotions, and compensation. Ensure that these criteria are consistently applied to all employees.

5. Collect and analyze data

Regularly collect data on demographics, pay, and promotion rates. Analyze this data to identify patterns and disparities that may indicate bias. Use this information to make data-driven decisions.

6. Inclusive leadership

Train leaders and managers on how to lead inclusively. Encourage them to model inclusive behavior and set the tone for the organization.

7. Diversity and inclusion programs

Implement diversity and inclusion programs that go beyond just training. These programs can include mentorship, sponsorship, employee resource groups, and initiatives to create an inclusive culture.

8. Anonymous feedback mechanisms

Create channels for employees to report bias or discrimination anonymously. Ensure that employees feel safe coming forward with concerns.

9. Regular check-ins

Conduct regular check-ins with employees to understand their experiences, concerns, and suggestions for improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

10. Promote transparency

Communicate the organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion openly and regularly. Share progress and initiatives with employees.

What can you do to combat unconscious bias as an individual?

There are many actions businesses can take to reduce unconscious bias in the workplace, however, each and every person holds a responsibility to tackle unconscious bias.

9 Steps employees can take to combat unconscious bias

Here are the steps you can take as an individual to combat unconscious bias in the workplace:

  1. Self-reflection: Examine your own biases and assumptions. Be open to acknowledging that you may have unconscious biases, and commit to addressing them.
  2. Educate yourself: Learn more about unconscious bias and its impact. There are many resources, books, articles, and online courses available on the subject.
  3. Practice empathy: Try to understand the perspectives and experiences of others. Put yourself in their shoes to gain insight into their challenges and viewpoints.
  4. Challenge stereotypes: When you catch yourself making assumptions or stereotypes about others, consciously challenge those thoughts. Ask yourself why you hold those beliefs and whether they are valid.
  5. Active listening: Pay close attention to what others are saying without interrupting or making assumptions. Give everyone an equal opportunity to express themselves.
  6. Speak up: If you witness bias or discrimination, speak up and address it respectfully and constructively. Encourage open conversations about bias in the workplace.
  7. Be inclusive: Include everyone in team activities, discussions, and social events. Make an effort to create an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and heard.
  8. Mentor and sponsor: Support and mentor individuals from underrepresented groups. Advocate for their advancement and inclusion in decision-making processes.
  9. Continuous improvement: Recognize that addressing unconscious bias is an ongoing process. Regularly assess your own progress and make adjustments as needed, such as seeking further training or guidance.

At FDM, diversity, equity, and inclusion are ingrained in everything we do and these practices are a part of our every day. It is our mission to make a career in technology accessible to all and provide our clients with the top, diverse talent available. If you’re serious about tackling unconscious bias, starting with your recruitment processes, check out the FDM Consultant services or get in touch for more information.