Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

8 min. read

Unconscious bias: what is it? And how do you mitigate its effects in the workplace?

What is unconscious bias in the workplace? Our unconscious bias definition

Unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias, is a term that describes the underlying attitudes and stereotypes people hold, outside of their conscious awareness and control. These unconscious biases are attributed to other people or groups of people and can have a significant effect on attitude and behavior. This type of unconscious prejudice can influence key decisions in the workplace and hinders diversity, inclusion and equality, especially in areas such as recruitment, career progression, and retention.

Unconscious biases differ from conscious, or explicit biases, which are intentionally discriminative, and are triggered by our minds automatically making quick judgments. Unconscious bias is far more prevalent in the workplace than conscious prejudice and is often inconsistent with a person’s conscious values.

Where does unconscious bias come from?

Everyone holds unconscious beliefs. They are formed from our inherent human cognition, personal experiences, upbringing, cultural context, and environment. These biases stem from peoples’ tendency to organize the social world by categorizing.

To create a diverse organization it is important to understand the common forms of unconscious bias and how to avoid them.

Types of unconscious bias

Below are five types of unconscious bias with examples of how they can have a negative impact in the workplace and tips on how to avoid them.

Gender Bias

Gender bias is the favoring of one gender over another and it is commonly referred to as sexism. Gender bias is often used to refer to the preferential treatment men receive — specifically caucasian, heterosexual males. Gender bias occurs when a person unconsciously associates certain stereotypes based on gender.

Example of gender bias in the workplace:

Gender bias can affect recruitment processes, career advancement opportunities, and relationship dynamics within an organization. For example, hiring managers may favor male candidates over female candidates even though they have similar skills and experience.

A recent study found that both men and women prefer male job candidates. So much so that, in general, a man is 1.5x more likely to be hired than a woman. Another well-known example is the gender pay gap. As of 2021, the average median salary for men is about 18 percent higher than women.

How to avoid gender bias:

It is important to set gender-neutral recruitment standards as well as diversity hiring goals to create a more gender-diverse workplace.

Prior to hiring, define ideal candidate profiles and evaluate all candidates against those standards based on their individual skills and merits. Hiring managers can also conduct blind screenings of potential applications, excluding aspects that may reveal their gender.

Within an organization, support and resources should be provided for women to take on leadership roles.


Ageism in the workplace refers to stereotyping or discriminating against a person based on their age. Often these negative feelings are directed at older team members, but younger employees may also experience ageism.

Example of Ageism in the workplace:

One example of ageism is when an older employee is passed over for promotion in favor of a younger employee with less experience.

Another is when a younger employee is belittled or refused a pay rise or promotion based on their youth, not their performance.

How to avoid Ageism:

Combat age-related stereotypes by training employees to understand the issue of ageism in the workplace.

Encourage cross-generational collaboration with mentorship programs. Senior employees can be paired with new hires to build connections and help debunk some of the myths about workers of different ages.

Engage older team members and don’t make assumptions based on age. Create policies that prevent age bias along with recruitment goals to keep age diversity front of mind throughout the hiring process.

Name Bias

Name bias is the tendency to judge and prefer people with certain types of names, usually names of Anglo origin.

Example of name bias in the workplace:

Name bias is most prevalent in the workplace when hiring decisions are being made. One example is when the person in charge of recruitment offers interviews to job applicants with names of Anglo origin over equally qualified candidates with non-Anglo names.

Studies have found that candidates with Anglo-sounding names receive 5 more callbacks for interviews than candidates with African American sounding names. Asian last names are 28 percent less likely to receive callbacks for interviews compared to Anglo last names.

How to avoid name bias:

You can avoid name bias during the hiring process by removing names and personal information from applications and resumes. Instead, candidates could be assigned a number, or an unbiased team member could omit the information manually before it is screened.

There is also blind hiring software available which will automatically block out the relevant information on all applications to reduce negative judgments.

Beauty Bias

Beauty bias refers to the positive stereotyping of people who are considered more attractive where it is assumed they are more competent, qualified, and successful based on their physical appearance.

Example of beauty bias in the workplace:

An example of beauty bias in the workplace is when a recruiter hires candidates, or prefers job applicants, that they believe are good-looking. Another common manifestation of beauty bias is discrimination against obese, unusually dressed, or tattooed applicants, or any person who doesn’t appear to fit in with society’s dominant aesthetic criteria.

This doesn't necessarily apply to a position which is public-facing and where part of the job description is to represent the company or business in a certain way. Someone with a face tattoo and multi-colored hair may not be the best spokesperson for a company that offers services or products to a predominantly conservative client base.

Likewise someone who looks like a stock broker and is on the older side of the spectrum, wouldn't necessarily be the best spokesperson for an emerging startup looking to appeal to GenZ. So clearly, there is nuance that needs to be considered here. The most qualified person for the job has, as part of their merits, being acceptable visually to the customers and the public.

Hiring decisions should be made on the person’s ability to perform the job well, regardless of their looks, but if we're honest with ourselves, we know that this is extremely difficult for human beings to do. A recent study found that the chance of being hired is twice as much for someone who is rated by humans as a 7/10 vs someone rated a 3/10. This is the impact of unconscious bias.

How to avoid beauty bias:

To avoid beauty bias, pictures can be omitted from resumes to encourage decision-making based on a job applicant’s experience and qualifications. Telephone screenings can be conducted prior to interviews to get to know the candidate better without being influenced by appearances. Recruiters should receive unconscious bias training focused on the detection of hidden biases throughout the interview process.

Affinity Bias

Affinity bias is also known as similarity bias and it refers to the tendency to prefer people who share similar interests, backgrounds, and life experiences. We tend to connect more with, and feel more comfortable around people who we think are like us, or who have something in common with us. Of course it's nice to be around someone who has similar interests and common ground, and while having friends in the office is important, it certainly is not the end-all, and is certainly not a requirement for hiring. Nepotism (The practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs) is another common example of this phenomenon.

Example of affinity bias in the workplace:

If a hiring manager gravitates towards a potential candidate because they attended the same university or because they support a certain sports team, this is an example of affinity bias. When candidates are hired because they will fit in with the rest of the team and the culture of the organization, it is important to understand that over time this will affect diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

How to avoid affinity bias:

Make sure to put together a diverse hiring team with differing perspectives to reduce the potential affinity bias of one individual recruiter. Avoid hiring for ‘culture fit’ and instead aim to hire candidates that would contribute to the team as a ‘culture add.’ Similarities shouldn’t automatically disqualify an applicant, they can be important for team building, but they should not be a deciding factor. If you hire "more of the same" you will only get "more of the same". It is important to diversify your team so that new and creative ideas and out-of-the-box approaches can be brought to the table.

Key takeaways on unconscious bias at work

If unconscious bias is prevalent in an organization it means that employees and potential job candidates might be unfairly discriminated against or favored by people who don’t even realize they have done so. To prevent unconscious bias in the workplace it is important to provide bias and inclusion training so more employees are aware of the underlying prejudices that exist. Take action to avoid biases when recruiting, hiring, promoting, and retaining employees. This will help an organization to grow successfully and to build a more diverse, inclusive, and non-judgmental team.