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What Is Unconscious Bias? Examples and How to Avoid it in Your Workplace

Biases are stereotypes about certain groups of people based on traits like race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or weight. Conscious bias, or explicit bias, occurs when someone purposefully stereotypes another individual on the basis of belonging to such a group. Unconscious bias occurs when an individual perpetuates such stereotypes without conscious awareness. 

Even though it may not be purposeful, unconscious bias can be just as damaging – especially at work. In a survey on bias, 39% of respondents revealed that they experience bias at work at least once per month. What’s more, 68% said that witnessing or experiencing bias took a negative toll on their productivity.

By understanding types of unconscious bias – also called implicit bias – we can help counter them and create inclusive working environments where everyone is fairly treated and able to thrive. This article explains what unconscious bias is, gives examples of how it functions in the workplace, and provides tips for creating a fair work environment.

  1. Understanding unconscious bias in the workplace
  2. Types of unconscious bias
  3. Identifying unconscious bias
  4. Examples of unconscious bias
  5. Addressing and avoiding unconscious bias
  6. Creating an inclusive workplace
  7. Promote equality through education: Further reading and resources

Understanding unconscious bias in the workplace

Before tackling unconscious bias, it’s helpful to understand its roots. Why does unconscious bias exist? Life experiences, often when a person is very young, are thought to form a basis, as these beliefs are often learned in childhood. For instance, some research has shown that racial bias may appear as early as age seven.

As people grow into adulthood, their attitudes are reinforced through their own actions, already informed by the bias. Biases become a shortcut for the mind: The brain processes huge amounts of information every second, and it’s easier for it to fall back on existing attitudes – like biases – during decision-making.

Unfortunately, the impact of implicit bias can be very real. In the workplace, biases can affect recruitment, promotions, and team dynamics. For instance, a senior leader who’s conditioned to believe that men are better at physically demanding jobs may unconsciously favor males when recruiting for roles that require physicality.

This example refers to just one type of bias, gender bias. However, unconscious bias can take many forms. The next section covers some of the most prevalent forms.

Types of unconscious bias

The first step to combating bias is to recognize it. Below, we outline some of the more common types of bias, from affinity bias to ageism, and explain how they may manifest in the workplace.

Affinity bias

Affinity bias is also known as similarity bias. When a person has an affinity bias, they tend to favor those who are similar to them – for example, people who share the same race or background. The adage, “Birds of a feather flock together,” holds true. There’s research to prove it, showing how affinity bias creates “in groups” and “out groups.” In the workplace, this can hamper diversity and collaboration.

Confirmation bias

People are inclined to seek out information that confirms their expectations and existing points of view. This is known as confirmation bias. By interfering with an individual’s ability to approach problems objectively (because they’ll pick and choose the information they want to validate their worldview) confirmation bias can lead to skewed data interpretation.


Ageism is also a type of bias, which occurs when people are discriminated against because of their age. This can be a big issue in hiring. There are even American laws to protect against age discrimination (the Age Discrimination in Employment Act). However, surveys suggest that two out of three workers 45 and older have experienced or witnessed age discrimination.

Gender bias

Gender bias may also be referred to as sexism. It occurs when someone ascribes stereotypes to certain genders, implicitly preferring one gender over another. Gender bias affects the workplace in areas like recruitment and pay. The gender pay gap is a good example: As of 2022, women earn 82% of what men earn, on average (so, for every $1 a man earns, a woman earns 0.82 cents).

Halo effect

The halo effect occurs when a single trait of an individual leads others to perceive them positively overall. This can result in giving these individuals an unfair advantage. The halo effect may also be informed by other biases, like an affinity bias. For instance, it’s been suggested that hiring managers tend to prefer people who are similar to them. The opposite of the halo effect? The horn effect.

Identifying unconscious bias

The list above covers some of the most common types of unconscious bias. Recognizing such different types of unconscious bias is a first step to countering them. However, identifying implicit bias within oneself is often challenging; these biases are in the subconscious, where they aren’t readily accessible to us.

Luckily, there are tools available to help unveil unconscious bias, like:

  • Implicit association tests. An IAT is designed specifically to unveil bias. It requires an individual to sort words or images into categories. The idea is that people will sort concepts that are well-correlated and have more trouble pairing concepts that aren’t well-correlated (in their view). Harvard has an IAT online.
  • Self-assessments. Taking time to sit down and question one’s own biases can be a first step. Since implicit biases are often formed through life experiences in childhood, reexamining this stage of life is a starting point. Beliefs learned from parents or other role models as a child are also worth questioning.
  • Feedback from others. Often, others are able to perceive our biases better than ourselves. Soliciting feedback from others about bias can be illuminating and help open the door to greater self-reflection.

Examples of unconscious bias

A look at some real-world examples of unconscious bias can likewise be helpful in identifying bias in one’s self. Below, we examine recent case studies of bias: racial bias in healthcare, gender bias in leadership roles, and name bias in recruitment.

Racial bias in healthcare

Studies have shown that black and minority patients tend to receive lower-quality health care than their white counterparts. This may contribute to higher mortality rates for minority groups in certain disease areas, like cancer and heart disease. What was previously ascribed solely to genetic causes is now seen as being informed partially by unconscious bias in the healthcare system.

Gender bias in leadership roles

The “glass ceiling” is well-known as a representation of women’s struggles to gain leadership positions. In various types of leadership – political, academic, corporate, and entertainment – women still fall behind men. Old stereotypes that suggest women can’t lead well are one reason for this.

Name bias in hiring

Name bias refers to the tendency to prefer certain types of names over others. In English-speaking Western culture, for example, this could mean a person preferring Anglo-sounding names, like John or Mary. Name bias has been shown to be an issue in recruitment, negatively impacting diversity.

Addressing and avoiding unconscious bias

Addressing unconscious bias requires education. Learning about real-world instances of bias and its implications, like the case studies above, is a good first step. Recognizing bias further demands ongoing self-reflection using the techniques described above, like the IAT. 

Organizations can also take steps to combat bias. Helpful measures to implement include:

  • Diversifying hiring practices. Combat bias during recruiting by making sure job descriptions use inclusive language, standardizing the interview process and questions, and being careful of bias resulting from video interviews. For example, background noises or images beyond a candidate’s control in a Zoom call can generate unconscious bias.
  • Instituting mentorship programs. Mentorship programs can be useful in combating bias. Mentors rarely pair with direct reports, so they aren’t attached to the individual’s role in the company and can be more objective in their thinking. Mentorship can also help elevate those who may be unseen or otherwise negatively affected by bias.
  • Implementing unconscious bias training. Unconscious bias training goes a step beyond raising awareness in the workplace. It teaches people how to recognize how bias impacts their behavior – and to then change that behavior.

Creating an inclusive workplace

Tackling unconscious bias using the techniques above doesn’t just improve the workplace for individuals, it also promotes general diversity in the workplace – and diverse teams are worth nurturing. Why? First and foremost, diversity is essential for social justice. It also helps to foster creativity and good decision-making in organizations by inviting more opinions to the table. Plus, research suggests that diversity boosts the bottom line.

Try these tips to minimize bias in day-to-day interactions and create an inclusive, diverse workplace:

  • Create clear inclusion guidelines. Crafting a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statement helps set the tone for your anti-bias practices. Learn how to draft a DEI statement.
  • Provide DEI training. In addition to anti-bias training, as described above, provide inclusion training. Make this a part of your standard onboarding procedure. This could include giving new hires a questionnaire to understand what they need to feel included, for example.
  • Have management set the tone. Leading by example is critical. Provide diversity training to managers, so they can learn the tenets of inclusive leadership, like giving fair performance reviews.
  • Establish clear hiring and promotion policies. Make sure to standardize your policies on hiring, promotion, and pay, so that bias can’t become a factor. For example, a hiring grid or matrix helps promote objective recruitment.
  • Institute a system of checks and balances. Include diversity and inclusion efforts as part of regular performance evaluations. This is an opportunity to give and provide feedback in a safe space.

Promote equality through education: Further reading and resources

To challenge bias in your organization, continuous learning is essential. Only through raising constant awareness and giving attention to the issue can you challenge – and change – biased behaviors. These educational resources may prove useful: 

Another potential resource: IMD Business School. IMD offers executive programs for individuals and organizations, including custom programs that can be tailored to your organization’s unique needs – such as better dealing with bias. Discover our programs.

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