Unconscious biases have become a major concern for modern workplaces. But, just what is an ‘unconscious bias’? And what does an unconscious bias mean? Quite simply, an unconscious bias is a bias that you don’t know that you have. Almost everyone likely has unconscious biases, but they cause a lot of problems in the workplace. The biggest problem with unconscious biases in the workplace is that they impact how people are treated by others. 

What is unconscious bias in the workplace?

The answer to the question, ‘what is unconscious bias?’ is that it is a set of non-conscious attitudes that a person feels about those around them. The sub-conscious attitudes aren’t necessarily coherent thoughts so much as biases that people don’t realize they have. As for how unconscious bias is formed: Most unconscious biases are deeply ingrained in people because of their social environments. 

Unconscious biases affect how people think about and perceive others. Sometimes unconscious biases also affect how people emotionally feel about others or how they behave around them. For this reason, unconscious biases can cause harm in the workplace. There are many different types of unconscious biases–most relate to an individual’s own thoughts. 

Also read: 5 Performance Management Biases To Avoid

The most negative manifestations regarding unconscious biases are those that involve a negative emotion or stereotyping of other people. For example, an individual who has an unconscious bias against people of a different ethnic group will likely treat members of that ethnic group differently or worse in an office environment. 

Unconscious biases around other people are the most dangerous, since they affect people’s behavior with others. For the rest of this article, we will mostly be referencing this form of unconscious bias since it is most relevant for modern workplaces. 

How are unconscious biases harmful to the workplace?

Unconscious bias harms a workplace by making it less comfortable for the people in it. Unconscious biases can directly lead to financial loss for a company and deteriorate employee experience. 

Financial Loss

Unconscious biases threaten meritocracy in any firm. When there’s a high degree of unconscious bias among managers against members of certain groups, it leads to fewer people of that group applying to the company. This deduction in applicants leads directly to a loss of potential talent. There are also direct financial costs of unconscious bias. 

It’s believed that US workplaces collectively lose $450 to $550 billion annually because of workplace bias, a majority of which is estimated to be unconscious bias. When employees face bias, they will tend to either leave the company or become dissatisfied. The result is a higher turnover rate and increased inefficiency. Companies can even face legal charges for demonstrating bias against employees.

Employee Experience

Unconscious bias can damage employee experience by inflicting micro-aggressions against the victim. Since unconscious biases are not deliberate, they get triggered outside of people’s control, which means unconscious biases can appear anywhere. For example, a manager would assume that an older employee does not have an interest in learning new technologies only because of their age. An older employee could feel personally attacked by such comments. 

Another example could be a manager refusing to permit a younger employee to become a team leader, even if they’re the best qualified, because of a bias against younger people. These types of biases can cause a large degree of harm to employee morale over time. Some types of unconscious bias may even become systemic in an entire company or region. For example, 48% of African American women and 47% of Latin American women have reported being mistaken for administrative staff. 

Employees who experience such biases actively are likely to have lower morale and higher dissatisfaction with the company. Employees with reduced morale will almost certainly contribute less to the company and have decreased productivity. One study that involved over 3,570 respondents of different racial backgrounds reported that those who experience unconscious biases were:

  1. 33% feel alienated.
  2. 34% decreased participation in meetings
  3. 80% would not recommend the employer.
Also read: Performance Management Software: A Buyer’s Guide

Steps to prevent unconscious bias in workplace

Now that we’ve answered the question, ‘what is unconscious bias?’, and ‘what does unconscious bias mean?’, we’ll cover how to prevent unconscious bias and combat it in your workplace. 

Preventing or combating unconscious bias mostly involves teaching your workforce to recognize and eliminate their unconscious biases. Most people don’t realize they have unconscious biases, so they must be taught to do so. 

Unconscious biases can’t be removed on an individual basis. Instead, it’s necessary to remove that throughout an organization. 

1-Inform your managers and teams

The first step to removing unconscious bias from your workforce is to make them aware of it. After all, unconscious bias, by its nature, is not known to the people who possess it. Explain what stereotyping is to your employees and help them recognize their biases. By educating employees about unconscious biases, they’ll automatically recognize their own biases. Awareness training is the first step to combating biasness. The goal is awareness training is for your employees to understand and reflect that they may have demonstrated an unconscious bias in their past actions. 

2-Set expectation

Most of your employees will reflect immediately about whether they have any unconscious bias, but some may need a stronger push. The best way to convince all of your employees to start working on fixing their unconscious bias would be to set company-wide policy. Your employees need to know that your business is anti-biased and anti-discrimination. You can do this by inserting a diversity statement in your organization’s values. You should start using terms like ‘ diversity, equality, and inclusion’ to promote your workplace culture in favor of eliminating biases. By doing so, your employees will be motivated to work on fixing their unconscious biases. 

Also read: Do These 8 Things To Improve Employee Engagement

3-Improved Hiring Process and Career Opportunities

Hiring and promotional activities are when unconscious bias is likely to be the most problematic. You need to have a company-wide policy of transparent hiring and promotion. Your employees need to feel that they’re judged only for the quality of the work they produce and not for their ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, or other demographic qualities. When hiring new employees, make sure that only their qualifications are taken into account. When considering employee promotions, it’s vital to prove to your employees that only the best performing employees receive promotions.

You’ll know that your hiring and promotional policies are appropriate when no employees will feel left out for personal reasons. Your employees need to always feel that they’re valued for the work they produce, and not what the color of their skin is. Your inclusive workplace needs to actively demonstrate to employees that your firm’s total commitment is to diversity and inclusion. 

4-Make Managers onboard and responsible

Unconscious bias accusations are most commonly directed towards managers and company leaders since unconscious bias is most dangerous when directed from these people. You need to ensure that your managers and business leaders are devoid of unconscious biases against employees. It’s also extremely important to ensure that when they do commit biased actions, your managers are held accountable for them. 

Your employees will respect your company more for holding managers accountable. You should have an active company policy to ensure your managers are always accountable for their actions. Doing so will help systematically eliminate unconscious bias from your organization and prevent it from ever developing again. 

5-Switch to data driven approach

One of the best ways to eliminate unconscious bias is to set objective standards and criteria for hiring and promotional activities. By reducing the amount of judgment that managers can leverage, you’ll automatically reduce the amount of unconscious bias they can demonstrate. You should start by developing an objective and clear criteria for recruitment. Your managers should have a clear set of requirements against which to judge potential candidates. 

Some companies even use ‘blind evaluations’, in which a candidate’s demographic information, including gender, remains undisclosed during the evaluation process. It’s also possible to dispense with mostly human recruitment managers in favor of having performance management software judge whether potential applicants are suitable for a position. 

Also read: 13 Ways To Use HR Data To Improve Decision Making

6-Promoting dialogues

You can also prevent unconscious biases from growing by encouraging your employees to increase communication among themselves. Building an open and expressive work environment makes it easier for employees to interact with one another and reduce the chances of developing biases. These conversations will also help employees improve work morale and develop better relationships with one another. 

The more of your organization’s members participate in such activities, the better. By opening as inclusive a dialogue as possible, your employees will have the most opportunity to eliminate their biases. Another benefit of open dialogues is that they represent an excellent opportunity for employees to bring attention to the unconscious biases they’ve experienced.

7-Making meetings inclusive

Increasing inclusivity is generally one of the best ways to reduce unconscious biases. When every employee has the chance to speak in meetings, they’ll be able to value one another better by recognizing the importance of each other’s time. You can make meetings more inclusive by ensuring that all employees speak and that all of them speak equally. Equal interaction is one of the most effective ways to ensure that your employees feel inclusive in your organization. When every employee feels listened to, it’s evidence to them that they won’t suffer from unconscious biases or prejudices in your company. 

8-Provide bias training

Formal bias training is the most effective systematic way to reduce biases from your organization. Formal unconscious bias training includes all members of an organization. Bias training will help your employees to recognize what unconscious biases are, how to spot them, and recognize the different unconscious bias types. 

This training will be invaluable for raising awareness of the importance of bias training, in addition to also providing employees a way to inform you of their concerns regarding any bias they’ve already faced in your organization. Bias training will also help teach those employees who are most guilty of unconscious biases how to remove their biases. 

As such, bias training is an extremely effective way to prevent unconscious biases from your organization. It’s also the best systematic way since it would target all levels of your organization. 

Also read: 10 One On One Meeting Questions You Should Ask Your Team

9-Empowering complaints

Ultimately, almost none of your efforts will prove worthwhile unless your company properly demonstrates their commitment to preventing bias until they empower complaints. Your employees need to see upper management take appropriate action against anyone in the organization’s unconscious bias to be convinced that your organization’s actions are genuine. 

You need to empower your employees’ complaints and show them that proper action will always be taken against bias. One way that you can make it easier for employees to make complaints would be to permit them to make complaints anonymously. Employees will feel more empowered when they can make complaints anonymously and without fear of retribution.

In conclusion, unconscious biases are a threat to productivity in the modern workplace. An unconscious bias is a belief of attitude held by an individual that isn’t actively thought of. Unconscious biases are problematic because they impact how people treat others. At their worst, unconscious biases result in people treating others poorly and passing them over for employment and promotional opportunities they deserve. To ensure a good organizational workflow, it’s necessary to remove unconscious bias from your organization by implementing various steps, including bias training. 


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