How Unconscious Bias Can Impact the Workplace and Job Search

Black man interviewing facing skeptical HR managers
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Even with good intentions and a strong desire to be fair and equitable, unconscious bias manifests itself in many ways in the workplace. Hiring practices are fraught with nepotism and affinity bias; micro-aggressive behaviors and inequities thrive, and some groups are marginalized and miss out on opportunities to excel.

It is natural for people to be drawn to individuals and situations that are familiar and to be part of the “in group.” While this makes them comfortable, it leaves a whole other group out on the periphery without a sense of belonging or respect. This is one reason that unconscious bias must be addressed and not swept under the rug.  

What Is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious, or implicit, bias is a learned stereotype about certain groups of people. We all carry biases, developed through the environment in which we have been socialized. As a result, many of us pre-judge people based on limited facts, which often leads to bias and discrimination.

Knowing the impact that unconscious bias can have on employees’ morale and on a company’s financial performance, leaders should commit to taking action to create an inclusive culture, where everyone can contribute, innovate, and thrive.

Unconscious bias is often defined as prejudice or unsupported judgments in favor of or against one thing, person, or group as compared to another, in a way that is usually considered unfair. In most cases, it is exhibited toward minority groups based on factors such as class, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality, religious beliefs, age, and disability. 

The Emotional Effect of Unconscious Bias

The irony with unconscious bias in the workplace is that it can impact people positively or negatively; some people benefit while others are left at a disadvantage. In the latter case, it can be emotionally taxing. For example, when someone is mistaken for being part of the service staff, or when they are constantly being interrupted during meetings, or when their names are continually mispronounced after several corrections, it is not only disheartening and demeaning, but can make it very difficult for those affected to function.

Unconscious bias sometimes gives rise to loneliness, isolation, and feelings of rejection. 

Speaking with The Balance via Zoom and email, Alicia Sullivan, a human rights, equity, and inclusion specialist, said that we should reflect on the people around us with whom we have conversations about our career goals and aspirations. Who are they? Who is missing? Who is not on your radar and who do you not interact with? This is a demonstration of “in-group” and “out-group” dynamics. We tend to have a preference, bias, or an affinity in favor of the “in-group” and ignore those in the “out-group”—those who wouldn’t naturally be at the top of our list for opportunities or even conversations.

According to Sullivan, this is exactly how unconscious bias works. “We are blind to these patterns of interaction until we pause to reflect and be intentional about how we privilege those with whom we have affinity and how this has real consequences for those with whom we do not share commonalities,” she said.

Types of Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias can take shape in several ways. Here are some of the more notable types. 

Affinity Bias

Affinity bias is when we gravitate toward people who are similar to us in gender, race, ethnicity, or nationality. As mentioned above, it is reflected through “in-group” and “out-group” dynamics when we prefer to align ourselves with or ignore certain groups of individuals. 

Conformity Bias

Conformity bias, also known as “peer pressure,” is a type of self-preservation. It happens when someone conforms to groupthink even when decisions might go against their principles and personal beliefs. They hold back their opinion in order to fit in.

Microaggression

This consists of subtle negative messages, hidden insults, and negative attitudes that are frequently communicated to and about people belonging to marginalized groups, often going unnoticed by the communicator.

The Halo Effect

The “halo effect” comes into play when someone unconsciously judges an individual as being totally competent or totally incompetent based on first impression. There is no middle ground with this assumption.

The Impact of Unconscious Bias on the Workforce

Even though companies might have a strong desire to be fair and equitable, everyone is impacted negatively or positively by both conscious and unconscious bias. 

Sullivan said, “Historically, women, minorities, and marginalized groups have faced the most bias against them (both conscious and unconscious). This negatively affects career prospects for these groups where they tend to be stuck at lower levels in the workplace receiving fewer promotions and are not usually visible enough to be identified and mentored or sponsored by leaders.” 

She added that, in the end, some of these individuals wind up downsizing their career aspirations, ultimately not realizing their full potential and, as a result, the workplace suffers through their sub-optimal contributions.

The threat of workplace bias also puts a burden on marginalized groups to constantly be on their guard. In a report from global nonprofit Catalyst, nearly 60% of the women and men of color surveyed cite the emotional tax that they—meaning Asian, Black, Latinx, and multiracial professionals—pay at work when they feel they must be on guard to protect against racial and gender bias.

Unconscious bias is not limited to the U.S. In a similar survey from Catalyst Canada, 33%-50% of Black, East Asian, and South Asian professionals responded that they are highly on guard to protect themselves against bias, while 50%-69% have a dangerously high intent to quit.

These two reports help highlight how conscious and unconscious bias show up in the workplace on a daily basis.

Challenges for Job Seekers

Job seekers, particularly those from marginalized groups, face certain challenges with unconscious bias, which can be especially prevalent during the recruitment process. For instance, an applicant’s picture, name, hometown, or home country could influence a recruiter or employer’s opinion upon initial glance. 

In fact, one of the challenges that immigrant job seekers in Canada face is the perceived lack of Canadian experience. Highly-qualified candidates have been summarily dismissed because their resumes do not indicate that they have worked in Canada. This is one significant area where conscious and unconscious bias seeps into the recruiting process. A report published by the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) states that “the value placed by many employers on work experience gained in Canada was seen as a major barrier to success for immigrants.” While progress has been made, including a notable decrease in immigrant, or “newcomer,” unemployment rate since 2001, there is more that can be done.

How to Overcome Unconscious Bias

Many people struggle to advance in the workplace because of unconscious bias, but employers can disrupt these biases and drive value. Here are some recommendations. 

  • Examine every step of the recruiting cycle, from selecting, interviewing, and hiring, to performance reviews and promotion. 
  • Be intentional in your efforts and search for and hire those who might not always be on your radar. Such an approach will not only benefit the company, but it can be transformative for the job seeker.
  • Offer unconscious bias training to your staff. One of the free tools available to assess individual bias is Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test.

Vanderbilt University also provides some strategies to mitigate unconscious bias:

  • Learn as much as possible about unconscious bias and ways to combat it
  • Tell your story and listen to the stories of others
  • Avoid stereotypes and over-generalizations
  • Separate feelings from facts
  • Have a diverse group of people around the decision-making table
  • Engage in self-reflection to uncover personal biases
  • Develop safe and brave spaces to discuss unconscious bias
  • Be an active ally
  • Don’t expect a quick fix
  • Practice empathy

Job Seekers

We all carry biases, not just recruiters. Job seekers should:

  • Focus on the value they can offer an employer despite the fact they will encounter unconscious bias in the hiring process
  • Engage in self-reflection and become aware of their own biases
  • Learn to speak up for themselves and others, especially when they notice acts of unconscious bias
  • Review the strategies above from Vanderbilt University

The Bottom Line

Unconscious bias is real. It is prevalent in the workplace and is an impediment to job seekers looking for employment or a promotion. The responsibility lies with all of us to challenge the biases that influence us, and look carefully at how they are positively or negatively impacting others. Think of how we respond to others around us (especially those who are different from us), and the positive and negative assumptions we make about them.

The move to greater respect and inclusion needs to be a conscious and persistent effort on everybody’s part. That means we should aim to not only reduce unconscious bias at work, but also in our personal lives. Everyone wins when we exhibit open, respectful, and inclusive behaviors.

Article Sources

  1.  American Bar Association. "Unconscious Bias, Implicit Bias, and Microaggressions: What Can We Do about Them?" Accessed Nov. 16, 2020. 

  2. EW Group. "The different types of unconscious bias: examples, effects and solutions." Accessed Nov. 16, 2020.

  3. Catalyst. "Day-to-Day Experiences of Emotional Tax Among Women and Men of Color in the Workplace." Page 4. Accessed Nov. 16, 2020

  4. Catalyst. "Empowering Workplaces: Combat Emotional Tax for People of Colour in Canada." Page 3. Accessed Nov. 16, 2020

  5. Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council. "State of Immigrant Inclusion in the Greater Toronto Area Labour Market." Pages 11-12, 27. Accessed Nov. 16, 2020. 

  6. Vanderbilt University. "Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: Unconscious Bias." Accessed Nov. 16, 2020.