Executive Development Blog

The Real Effects of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Posted by UNC Executive Development on Oct 8, 2015 10:47:04 AM

UNC Executive Development paper on unconscious bias

Unconscious biases are a fact of life. Everyone harbors them and takes them into the workplace. Unconscious biases in the workplace can stymie diversity, recruiting and retention efforts, and unknowingly shape an organization’s culture. Unconscious bias can skew talent and performance reviews. It also affects who gets hired, promoted, and developed—and this unwittingly undermines an organization’s culture. HR and talent management professionals must ask the question, “To what extent are our organizational culture and business results being affected by unconscious bias?” 

Biases can be based on skin color, gender, age, height, weight, introversion versus extroversion, marital and parental status, disability status (for example, the use of a wheelchair or a cane), foreign accents, where someone went to college, and more. If you can name it, there is probably an unconscious bias for it.

These biases cause us to make decisions in favor of one group to the detriment of others, and they naturally creep into the workplace. Scores of studies document how unconscious bias affects workplace decisions. A study by Queensland University, for example, found that blond women’s salaries were 7 percent higher than women who were brunettes or redheads. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that for every 1 percent increase in a woman’s body mass, there was a .6 percent decrease in family income. A Duke University study found that “mature-faced” people had a career advantage over “baby-faced” people (people with large, round eyes, high eyebrows and a small chin). And a Yale University study found that male and female scientists—trained to reject the subjective—were more likely to hire men, rank them higher in competency than women, and pay them $4,000 more per year than women.

How to Uncover and Minimize Bias in the Workplace
HR and talent management professionals can help their organizations uncover and combat unconscious bias and its effects in the workplace by using the following steps:

  1.        Offer awareness training.
  2.        Label the types of bias that are likely to occur.
  3.        Create structures.

Offer Awareness Training


The first step to addressing unconscious biases in the workplace is to acknowledge that everyone has them, and this can be done by offering awareness training. Awareness training should give employees a safe place to learn about unconscious bias and how to recognize their own biases and be mindful about combating them in everyday decision making. Awareness training can also help create an organizational conversation about what biases are present in the company and what steps the organization as a whole can take to minimize them.

Label the Types of Bias That Are Likely to Occur
David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, suggests that to eliminate unconscious bias, it is important to label the types of bias that are likely to happen in the workplace. For example, has the halo effect (the tendency to only see the good about a person because of a personal affinity for that person) elevated an employee’s performance review while downgrading others? How has perception bias (the tendency to form stereotypes about certain groups that make it impossible to make an objective judgment about members of those groups) affected promotions? By labeling the possible biases and bringing them to the conscious level, leaders and employees will become more aware of how their biases affect decision making, hiring, promotions, compensation, and organizational culture.

Create Structures
Unconscious bias is the result of the brain’s lightning speed in taking in, tagging, and sorting information. To slow the brain down, HR and talent management professionals can, in conjunction with other senior leaders, create structures for activities like decision making, resume screening, and interview formats. These structures will allow for more deliberative actions and also give peers the opportunity to point out times when unconscious biases may be seeping in.

HR and talent management professionals can make positive contributions to their workplaces by rooting out and minimizing unconscious biases that can undermine diversity efforts and recruiting and retention programs. By providing the proper awareness training and putting processes and structures in place that highlight unconscious biases, organizations can minimize biases that often creep into every aspect of an organization.  

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