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Unconscious Bias: thinking without thinking



An individual makes countless decisions in a day without even being aware of them. The
solutions to various problems can be influenced by unconscious biases. It refers to a
situation which we are unaware of and which happens beyond our control. Interestingly, it
happens involuntarily and is triggered by our instinct. These instincts are influenced by our
background, societal environment, and personal experiences. These biases are a bundle of
feelings and thoughts about others that play a very important role in influencing our
judgment toward them. According to Noon (2018), unconscious or implicit biases are
learned stereotypes that are natural, automatic, unintentional, and so deeply engrained that
they can easily influence one’s behavior. In other words, we can say that unconscious bias
is a shortcut based on our attitudes and stereotypes that have developed over a period of
time (Guynn, 2015). They are reflexively triggered without our knowledge.
Unconscious biases are a fact of life; no one can deny them. They influence everything, from
clothes to car. These biases commonly manifest at workplace. The unconscious biases can
hurt or affect workplace diversity and employee policies, thereby undermining organizational
culture and ethics. Biases can be based on many things – skin color, marital status, gender,
parental status, age, height, physical and biological factors, etc. They can influence our
decisions in favor of one or other group. A study by Duke University revealed that “maturefaced”
people had a career advantage over “baby-faced” people. A Pew Research Center
survey (2015) revealed in a study that organizations tend to change their standards for
women who want to climb corporate ladder or who want entry in the C-suite. Hence, women
face more and greater problems if they occupy higher positions in the organization. In 2013,
Google revealed that only 3 of its 36 executives are female, and they owned this unfair ratio
because of the unconscious biases prevailing in the company (Manjoo, 2014).

How unconscious bias is formed?
The universal tendency of unconscious bias exists among human beings. They are often rooted
in a human’s brain, which is continuously bombarded with information and influences from one’s
background, values, traditions, beliefs, societies, cultural environment, etc. Our brain has the
tendency to group this information in various categories and tag them with general descriptions.
Bias occurs when our brain tags these categories with labels of “good” or “bad” and then
applies these generalizations indiscriminately. It can be assumed that unconscious bias can
also be caused by conditional learning. An individual’s unconscious biases are greatly
influenced by their social experiences. Researchers have claimed that repeated exposure to
stereotypical associations and prejudices forms the basis for unconscious biases.

Classification of unconscious bias
From the above literature, it is a known fact that we all have unconscious bias. The problem
is we are unable to identify where our unconscious bias lies. It is very important to figure
them out so that they can be removed. Few of the unconscious biases which influence our
workplace are as follows:

  • Halo effect: It is one’s tendency to positively evaluate a person based on one positive
    characteristic. For example, “He is great public speaker; therefore, he will be a great
    leader and good at managing others”.
    Affinity bias: It is also called as “like me” bias. It occurs when we see someone we feel
    we have an affinity with, e.g. we belong to same place, we graduated from same
    college, etc.
  • Conformity bias: It is a type of an unconscious bias which is caused by peer pressure.
    This is very commonly seen in interview rooms; when an individual observes that most
    of the interview panel members are leaning toward/away from a certain candidate, they
    tend to move toward group thinking rather than giving voice to their decision.
    Cloven hoof effect: It occurs when we generalize one negative aspect of a person in all
    areas of performance. For example, “She has a very poor dressing sense; therefore,
    she is lazy and very unprofessional”.
  • Attribution bias: When we do something good, we tend to own its success. But when we
    fail at something, we blame others for it. The irony is when we attribute meaning to
    other’s behavior, we think the other way round.
  • Beauty bias: It is the tendency to think that most beautiful/handsome individuals will be
    the most successful people at work. Thus, it is a common problem with recruiters, who
    will always try to look for attractive physical attributes to fill a particular role.
    Confirmation bias: This is one of the most dangerous biases. When we make an opinion
    about others, we subconsciously look for evidences to support our opinions. We do this
    because we want assurance for our opinion.

These unconscious biases lie within us, and many a times, we are unaware of them. It
hinders one’s decision-making whether at work or home. Hence, we end up taking
wrong decisions or holding incorrect opinions about others, which affects our working

How unconscious biases affect workplace
Unconscious biases influence individuals at different levels of management. They act as
hidden drivers which can harm business decisions. The detrimental effects can range
from messing up with the workplace diversity and turnover rate to promoting an
incoherent culture in organization. In addition, they hinder innovativeness, creativity,
cohesiveness, and inclusivity in the workplace. Unconscious biases can undermine the
recruitment and individual development efforts in an organization, thereby creating a
narrow pool of people.

Not only hiring, even promotions and feedback of an individual are affected by an
unconscious bias at workplace. Generally, they are based on race, gender, age, etc., which
ultimately give rise to inequality at work. This can disrupt the way people work together and
thus degrade the productivity of an organization. In a McKinsey’s Diversity report, it was
claimed that “Gender, race and cultural diversity, specifically within executive teams is
correlated with financial performance across multiple countries worldwide”. This study
indicates the importance of diverse workforce in an organization which is not ruled by
unconscious biases. The underlying like-likes-like dynamics can create a compounding and
degenerative effect to an organization’s climate, diversity, culture, and, most importantly, its

Managing unconscious bias at workplace
The role of business leaders is important in raising a question mark to the existence of
these unconscious biases. All strategies of human resource (HR) leaders will fail if they
are unable to locate such biases. If not taken care, strong organizations will be
degenerated. The various strategies which HR professionals can use to make people
realize their unconscious bias and thus remove its negative effects from an organization
are as follows:

  • Awareness training: To address unconscious biases, it is important to educate
    people and develop self-awareness about these biases (Stephens, 2015). The
    Implicit Association Test, developed in 1998, can be used as a major tool to develop
    awareness regarding biases. Big corporations such as Google and
    Pricewaterhouse Coopers, offer such workshops to all their employees so that they
    can develop the awareness.
  • Confront: Once people develop awareness about these biases, they should confront
    them. This helps them in identifying their mistakes.
  • Label: Based on past experiences, label some categories of biases which are
    continuously creating problems in the organization. By labeling the possible biases and
    bringing those to the conscious level, leaders and employees will become more aware
    of how these biases affect decision-making, hiring, promotions, compensation, and
    organizational culture.
  • Discuss: Share your experiences about unconscious biases and the strategies you
    might have adopted for overcoming them. This way, you can create an open
    environment for learning.
  • Reorganize structures and systems: HR professionals with other senior leaders can
    reorganize the structure and systems for different activities such as recruitment,
    training, evaluation, retention and interview. This way, we can create generalized
    systems to be adopted by all.

Unconscious bias happens when we make incredibly quick opinions and assessments
about people and situations. Thus, unconscious bias is unavoidable, but we can always
work upon removing its negative effects from our business decisions. HR professionals and
other top leaders can always develop strategies for unleashing various types of
unconscious biases prevailing in industry and removing them. This way, we can create a
workplace where a fair game is played.

Guynn, J. (2015), “Google’s ‘bias busting’ workshops target hidden prejudices”, USA Today.
Manjoo, F. (2014), “Exposing hidden bias atGoogle”, The New York Times.
Noon, M. (2018), “Pointless diversity training: unconscious bias, new racism and agency”, Work,
Employment and Society, Vol. 32No. 1, pp. 198-209.
Stephens, A. (2015), “How unconscious bias can control where we live and work”, Next City.
Keywords:Retention,Unconscious bias,Workplace diversity,Brain

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