Have you ever felt connected to a candidate because they remind you of yourself? Or maybe you’ve changed how you feel about a candidate after finding out it wasn’t in line with everyone else’s perceptions of them?
These are just two of the many examples of unconscious bias that may have influenced your hiring decisions in the workplace.
Much has been written about how unconscious bias impacts minority groups. But unfortunately, it’s not just minority groups who are impacted by unconscious bias in the workplace. There are a variety of unconscious biases that can negatively affect candidates during the recruitment process. Your personal biases can even impact your current team members.
If you want to reduce unconscious biases in your workplace, you need to learn about the key ones to be mindful of.
In this article, we’ll highlight some of the biggest examples of unconscious bias that present themselves in the workplace. You may have already heard of some, like conformity bias, weight bias, and gender bias. But there are many other biases that may be unfamiliar to you, like overconfidence bias, name bias, and height bias. Keep reading to learn all about the variety of unconscious biases that crop up in the workplace.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias is an umbrella term for the many different types of biases you may hold. As the name suggests, you’re likely unaware that you favor some employees and candidates over others. However, the values and biases we have can interfere with our thought processes, meaning that we may make poor or unfair professional decisions.
Letting your own opinions on certain things — such as people from specific backgrounds or genders — seep into the hiring process is unethical. But it can happen to the best of us. These biases tend to sit deep in our subconscious and dictate how we react in situations. Luckily, there are ways to reduce and even avoid unconscious biases in the workplace with proper training and education.
How does unconscious bias affect your organization?
Unconscious biases influence every aspect of your business. These types of implicit biases do more harm than good. For example, if you have an innate weight bias, you may favor slimmer employees over larger ones. This type of bias in the workplace creates an uneven playing field, on which some individuals are already doomed to fail.
When it comes to hiring new staff members, this issue may mean that you miss out on some of the top talent around. Allowing your personal preferences to dictate your decision-making is a risky game to play. Avoiding unconscious bias is important whatever your position. A good place to start is to develop an understanding of some of the main examples of unconscious bias in the workplace.
Types of unconscious bias
Combating bias in the workplace has never been more critical. Educating yourself on the core examples of unconscious bias will give you an overview of the problem, which is the first step in overcoming it. Here are some types of implicit bias:
Definition: Affinity bias, sometimes called similarity bias, happens when you unconsciously favor candidates who have similar interests, beliefs, or even backgrounds as you. You have an affinity with them, so are more likely to sympathize with or warm to them.
How it happens: Oftentimes, hiring managers fall into the trap of affinity bias when they are looking to hire someone who fits the ‘culture’ of the workplace. That means that they unintentionally favor candidates who are similar to their existing team members or themselves.
Why it’s a problem: Affinity bias is an issue since similarities shouldn’t be a deciding factor when it comes to landing a new job. You should avoid affinity bias as each candidate deserves to be judged based on merit, not their interests, beliefs, or background.
Definition: Confirmation bias is a common type of unconscious bias. It happens when you form an opinion about someone prior to the interview. Then — during the interview itself — you unconsciously look for evidence to support your belief.
How it happens: The fact of the matter is that we all want to be right. Confirmation bias happens when we ‘trust our gut’ and look for evidence that supports our opinion regardless of anything else.
Why it’s a problem: Forming a strong opinion of a candidate before you meet them is a mistake. When confirmation bias kicks in, you will only notice things that support your opinion and ignore everything else. This could lead to poor recruitment practices, such as overlooking an ideal candidate, so be conscious to avoid confirmation bias as soon as you become aware of it.
Definition: Attribution bias is when we judge a candidate or team member based on their behavior. For example, if a candidate is late to an interview, we may presume that they are lazy, disorganized, or untrustworthy.
How it happens: Humans naturally make assumptions. Attribution bias is your brain’s way of taking mental shortcuts; rather than taking in all the facts, you form an opinion based on a single instance.
Why it’s a problem? People are more than their mistakes. When you’re interviewing a candidate, it’s fair to look at all of their accolades and experience, not merely some off-hand behavior. Giving people the benefit of the doubt is a smart move if you want to improve your hiring practices.
Definition: If you’re part of a hiring team, chances are you’ve come up against conformity bias. This type of unconscious bias happens when hiring professionals change their opinions of a candidate to match the group’s perception of them.
How it happens: Conformity bias happens when people are more comfortable mimicking others than presenting a new opinion. The truth is that many of us have an innate desire to fit in with the crowd and, therefore, easily succumb to peer pressure.
Why it’s a problem: You should avoid conformity bias as it might make you miss out on an excellent candidate. Taking the time to listen to everyone’s opinion on candidates could help you find the right person for the job, not just the one everyone has chosen to agree on.
The halo effect
Definition: When you learn something impressive about someone, the halo effect might kick in. From that moment on, you will only see the candidate in a positive light.
How it happens: You may find out a candidate went to Harvard or previously worked at an exciting company. Based on that nugget of information, you presume that they are perfect and that everything they do is 100% correct.
Why it’s a problem: People are multifaceted. While a candidate may have an impressive accomplishment on their resume or previously worked at a notable company, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are right for the job. You need to judge them based on their skills and what they can bring to the role.
The horns effect
Definition: Unsurprisingly, the horns effect is the opposite of the halo effect. When you find out something unpleasant about a candidate, you may unjustly judge them on that.
How it happens: It’s easy to be put off by a candidate due to your unconscious biases. You might dislike the way that a candidate talks or the clothes that they are wearing, for example. When this unconscious bias happens, you disregard their skills and only look at the negatives.
Why it’s a problem: Having a negative feeling about a candidate — based on a minor thing — is not enough to disregard them. The recruitment process needs to be fair and give each candidate a proper chance based on what skills and qualities they can bring to the role.
Definition: The contrast effect is one of the unconscious biases that are hardest to catch. Essentially, it means that you compare two candidates and exaggerate the positive attributes of one based on the comparison.
How it happens: During the interview process, you will see a variety of candidates. So it’s no surprise that you might end up comparing them. When you see a poor candidate next to a good one, the latter may seem more exceptional than they actually are, while the former may seem worse.
Why it’s a problem: Over-emphasizing a candidate’s performance — based on comparison — could mean that you end up hiring the wrong person for the role. Contrast effect could therefore negatively impact the makeup of your workforce, as you discover too late that you not only misjudged the candidate you hired, but also the one you rejected.
Definition: Gender bias is straightforward to understand but can be complex to address. Put simply, gender bias describes the hiring manager’s tendency to prefer one gender over another during the decision-making process.
How it happens: You may exhibit an unconscious bias to favor one gender over another. For instance, a well-known example of gender bias is when a team member may have had a better working relationship with men in the past, and, therefore, prefers working with them. So when they interview female candidates, they’re less likely to want to hire them.
Why it’s a problem: Diversity is vital when hiring new workers.Gender bias creates an unfair recruitment process. One study found that both men and women prefer male candidates. That means that female employees have a natural disadvantage when it comes to applying for jobs. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to avoid gender bias in the workplace, such as practicing counteracting stereotypes and being conscious of using gendered language.
Definition: Ageism bias (or age bias) happens when you have negative feelings about a candidate based on how old they are.
How it happens: You may hold certain beliefs about older candidates. For example, they may presume that they are worse with technology than younger employees or will be slower to perform certain tasks. Ageism bias can also occur when younger candidates face negative bias. For example, a younger candidate may in fact have more experience than an older candidate, but get overlooked due to their age.
Why it’s a problem: Discriminating against a person based on their age is unethical. More than half of workers believe that age discrimination begins when they enter their 50s. Both younger and older candidates may not receive training or even be employed because it’s thought that it won’t benefit the workplace. Remember, all candidates deserve the same opportunities, regardless of their age, so be sure to avoid age discrimination at all costs.
Definition: Never judge a book by its cover — or a person by their name. Name bias happens when the hiring manager forms an opinion on a candidate based on their name.
How it happens: When the hiring team is looking over resumes, they may have preconceptions about certain names. For example, if a person’s name hints at their ethnicity, hiring managers may discriminate based on their views of that background.
Why it’s a problem: You should hire candidates based on whether they are right for the role. Name bias is rooted in presumptions about certain groups, such as groups from particular races, ethnicities, minorities, and backgrounds, which is unjust and unethical.
Definition: Beauty bias happens when you favor a pretty candidate over the competition. Research shows that attractive people are more likely to gain interviews and job offers than their less attractive counterparts.
How it happens: While there’s research to suggest that beauty bias happens, we currently do not know why. It may be that humans naturally favor those who are more attractive, as — evolutionarily speaking — that may be an indicator of good genetics.
Why it’s a problem: The reason you should make a concerted effort to avoid beauty bias is that reducing bias in the interview process leads to better hiring outcomes. Just because someone is attractive, it doesn’t mean that they will be right for the role. By the same token, someone who you deem as unattractive may be a good fit for it. To prevent beauty bias, use a structured hiring process and allow it to inform your decision-making.
Definition: Height bias is a well know example of discrimination based on a person’s physical appearance. This bias occurs when hiring managers subconsciously favor tall candidates over the shorter competition.
How it happens: This is an implicit bias, meaning that you may not be aware it’s happening. One underlying reason may be that tall people appear more authoritative, and so you may presume that they will be able to manage the role.
Why it’s a problem: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that a person’s height has nothing to do with their ability to do a job. Choosing a taller candidate or rejecting a shorter one does not equate to smart hiring decisions.
Definition: Anchor bias occurs when hiring managers use a piece of information about an initial candidate as the basis for their decision-making. For instance, if you interview a candidate early on who has low salary expectations, you may favor them over others.
How it happens: As we touched on when discussing the contrast effect, the hiring process is all about making comparisons. So, when you come across a candidate that appeals to you early on, you’re likely to measure the rest of your interviewees against them.
Why it’s a problem: It goes without saying that you should avoid anchor bias when interviewing candidates. Using one piece of information about a candidate to inform your decision-making across an entire process means that other candidates don’t get a fair shot.
Definition: More than half of all communication is nonverbal. With that in mind, nonverbal bias happens when you judge someone based on their mannerisms and body language.
How it happens: When you’re speaking to someone in an interview scenario you’re not only taking in what they say. You will also unconsciously make judgments on how they move, their mannerisms, and everything in between.
Why it’s a problem: It’s important to remember that candidates are usually nervous during an interview and may over accentuate certain mannerisms. Of course, their gestures have nothing to do with their skill set or ability. Just like you do for other biases, you should take steps to actively eliminate this type of bias in the workplace.
Definition: Authority bias is when you give more weight to an idea or thought because it was delivered by someone in a position of power.
How it happens: This type of unconscious bias can be present in the hiring process and everyday work in our professional lives. For example, you may listen to a senior manager’s opinion over anybody else’s when it comes to which candidate to hire.
Why it’s a problem: You cannot presume someone is correct simply because they have authority. The truth is that it’s hard to avoid authority bias since the working world uses a hierarchy model. However, it’s worth gaining opinions from a larger team when hiring to ensure you account for a variety of perspectives.
Definition: Overconfidence bias happens when one person has an unjust amount of confidence in their abilities. For instance, they may think they know how to solve a problem better than their peers, even though they have more skills and experience in the area.
How it happens: This type of bias in the workplace can be toxic. It occurs when one member of the team believes that they outrank their station. That individual may start to undermine their coworkers or belittle those around them.
Why it’s a problem: While this bias rarely comes up in the hiring process, you should avoid overconfidence bias in any work environment. Professionals who believe that they are better at their job than they actually are can cause conflict within the greater team, as well harm your company as a whole.
Status quo bias
Definition: Status quo bias (or similarity bias) is when people prefer the workplace to remain the same. In other words, it describes a bias shaped by adversity to change.
How it happens: Since this is one of the implicit biases, as a hiring manager you may not realize you’re doing it. However, if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of change, you may favor candidates who are similar to existing members of the team.
Why it’s a problem: Status quo bias is another unconscious bias you should avoid as it works against the goal of fostering a diverse team. In order to encourage a diverse workplace, you need to start hiring people from different backgrounds, with different levels of education, and with varying skill sets.
Definition: Perception bias happens when you judge a candidate based on certain stereotypes and assumptions. For example, you may assume that candidates with degrees from community colleges are less qualified than those from Ivy League schools.
How it happens: Our brains like to take mental shortcuts when making decisions. Rather than taking the time to consider all of the facts, we leap to a conclusion based on a small amount of information.
Why it’s a problem: Perception bias in the workplace and hiring process can be a real problem. It causes managers to make unfair decisions and favor certain individuals regardless of their skills or what they bring to the table.
Definition: Illusory bias occurs when you believe that there is a relationship between specific things, despite having no evidence that one exists. For example, you might believe that because a candidate is friendly, they will be good at admin.
How it happens: Quirky interview questions — such as ‘which dinosaur do you most identify with?’ — are often used to get to know candidates. However, this line of questioning risks leading you to judge people on characteristics other than their skill set.
Why it’s a problem: Making presumptions about a person based on false assumptions is a mistake. If you want to avoid unconscious bias, you should base your hiring decisions on whether the candidate has the right skill set, not other traits.
Definition: Do you ‘go with your gut’ when hiring? Affect heuristic is one of the most common implicit biases and happens when we trust our emotions rather than facts.
How it happens: Some individuals trust facts while others trust feelings. If you fall into the latter category, it’s all too easy to judge a candidate based on a ‘good vibe’.
Why it’s a problem: Letting your heart rule your head is a recipe for disaster. When you’re interviewing candidates, be sure to take a logical approach to reduce the unconscious biases that may be at play.
Definition: Do you favor the last candidate you interviewed? That’s what recency bias is all about — it means you opt for the most recent candidate.
How it happens: Our short-term memory only lasts around 20-30 seconds, so we can quickly forget important facts. During the hiring process, you may forget early candidates and choose individuals you met with later on.
Why it’s a problem: Hiring the last person that you interviewed is fraught with disadvantages. You may miss out on an amazing candidate simply because you interviewed them before the rest of the crowd. If you want to ensure you are always hiring the best person for the job, be mindful of this pervasive type of unconscious bias.
Idiosyncratic rater bias
Definition: Idiosyncratic rater bias, or the idiosyncratic rater effect, happens when hiring managers fail to accurately assess a candidate’s skill set.
How it happens: Within our professional lives, many of us are bad at rating others’ performance. That can lead to this type of bias in the workplace and interview process.
Why it’s a problem: To find the right candidates for the role, we need to be able to rate their skill set. However, a report by the Harvard Business Review states that “with enough training and time, people can become reliable raters of other people”. This is one of the reasons why unconscious bias training is such a powerful way to reduce unconscious biases.
Why you should identify and tackle unconscious bias today
Now that we’ve covered some of the main examples of unconscious bias, you should have a more in-depth understanding of the problem. So, let’s talk about the solution.
It’s important and ethical to avoid unconscious biases throughout your hiring processes and workplace. Every individual candidate and team member deserves the same opportunities as the next. However, when personal biases come into play, fairness goes right out of the window.
Providing your team with proper unconscious bias training is one way to avoid this issue and create a diverse workplace. While you can’t expect to transform your staff members’ mindsets overnight, giving them the tools to break their unconscious bias habits is a start.
It’s clear that unconscious biases are directly related to poorer outcomes not only for candidates but also for your workplace. A diverse team is a strong one, but biases can be challenging to overcome. The very first step is learning about what unconscious biases exist, and then recognizing how they may impact such decisions as who you hire and why. Once you do this, you will be on your way to making the hiring process more equitable, and in turn, fruitful for everyone.