6 Examples of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace


What does bias mean, and what are some examples of unconscious bias? If you have a brain, you have unconscious bias—it’s part of being human. Here are some of the most common types of implicit bias at work, and how to break the bias to create inclusive workplaces.

Explicit Versus Implicit Bias

Explicit bias includes the attitudes and beliefs we have about a person or group on a conscious level, so we are aware of them. On the other hand, implicit bias is also known as unconscious bias, and is about having a preference or a prejudice towards an individual or group that  influences your behavior without you realizing it. Our biases shapes how we act towards others and plays out in the workplace in terms of:

How Unconscious Bias Shows Up At Work

Here are just a few examples of research that shows how unconscious bias impacts us in the workplace: 

Moreover, for employees who say they experience bias at work, 33% of people report feeling alienated, 34% state that they withhold ideas and solutions at work, and 80% would not refer people to their employer. The isolation, alienation, and withholding of ideas can lead to low emotional engagement, increased absences, above average turnover, and lower client satisfaction which results from the lower employee engagement.

You’re probably thinking: I have biases—does that make me a bad person? That’s not the case; if you have bias, you’re simply human. We all have biases. It’s not about judging or naming and shaming. It’s about being able to identify when our unconscious biases are showing up in a way that harms rather than helps so we can create change, because in a lot of instances biases are so ingrained, and can take the form of subtle actions known as microaggressions that go unnoticed by the person doing them, but is felt in enormous ways by the person on the receiving end.

Types of Unconscious Bias

Here are some of the most common examples of implicit bias in the workplace, and how to overcome them.

Affinity Bias

Also known as similarity bias or “like me” bias, affinity or “like me” bias. We tend to feel comfortable with people who look, think and act like us. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, except that when it impacts:

  • Who you choose as your suppliers
  • Who you hire for that freelance project
  • Who your closest contacts and who your clients are.

For example, it’s been proven that similarity bias can show up in performance reviews when managers find commonalities with their direct reports. In fact, according to Greenberg’s 2010 research, when managers rate their direct reports such as during the review process, the more similar they are, the higher rating the manager tends to give. This tendency applies with respect to several different dimensions of similarity, like similarity of values and habits, similarity of beliefs about the way things should be at work, and similarity with respect to demographic variables such as education, like going to the same college for instance, or similarity in age, race, gender, and work experience.

How to break affinity bias:

To help break this unconscious bias from a general workplace inclusion perspective, acknowledge similarities with your colleagues—like those of the same race, gender, or age range—and then be intentional about noting some of the differences, so you can almost trick your brain from automatically going to the “like me” bias.

Attribution bias

Attribution bias is the tendency to attribute our successes to ourselves, and our failures to others and the situation. Interestingly enough, this perception often reverses when we view other people. When they do something successfully, we’re more likely to consider them lucky or benefited by someone else, and more likely to attribute their errors to poor capabilities or personal qualities.

Attribution bias may tend to more negatively impact women than men. For example, if a working mother has to miss work because she has a sick child at home and no emergency childcare options, a manager may view her as unreliable, regardless of if she rarely misses a deadline and meets her deliverables. This goes hand in hand with gender bias, and what is known as “the motherhood penalty.” The motherhood penalty is real: Research finds that 23% of working mothers say they have been passed over for a promotion because they have children. 

How to break affinity bias:

To break this unconscious bias, rather than making immediate assumptions, lay out the facts. For example, if a working mother is up for promotion and your immediate thought is, ‘she’s not leadership material,’ you might look back on her performance reviews to see if there is anything that would indicate that she is not a good manager. If she gets good results and favorable reviews from her direct reports, this can help interrupt infinity bias by making you rethink what a good leader looks like or what it takes to be effective in that role.

Conformity bias 

Conformity bias, or “group think,” happens when your views are swayed too much by those of other people. It tends to happen because we all seek acceptance from others and we want to hold opinions and views that our community accepts, so we “follow the herd” instead of making independent judgments.

We’re biologically wired to want to fit in for survival—hundreds of years ago exclusion from the pack could have literally meant death. That’s not true in today’s age—and with all the information we’re being bombarded with we have to be careful not to give in to group think, even though it’s easier to go along with others than stand out.

Conformity bias often plays out in the workplace during meetings or Zoom calls. For example, one or two people who speak up the most may influence the opinions of others to agree with their viewpoint, ultimately impacting the behavior of the whole team.

How to break conformity bias: 

You can help interrupt group think at work by being more conscious about how you gather information and opinions from team members. For example, you can present a specific topic or issue you’d like to discuss, and ask team members to submit ideas in advance of the meeting. This way you get the best variety of ideas rather than falling back on only the most vocal to speak first and sway others’ opinions.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias refers to how people primarily search for bits of evidence that back up their opinions, rather than looking at the whole picture. Meaning you overlook other information and instead focus on things that fit your particular view. 

You may even reject new information that goes against your viewpoint. For example, this unconscious bias can cause people to disregard negative information about a political candidate that they support, or to only pay attention to news articles that support their beliefs.

In the workplace, confirmation bias can play a detrimental role at the very beginning of the hiring process when you first review a resume and form an initial opinion of the candidate based on inconsequential attributes like their name, where they’re from, where they went to school, and so forth. That opinion can follow you into the interview process and steer your questions to confirm your initial opinion of the candidate.

How to break confirmation bias: 

While every interview will lend itself to a unique conversation based on the individual’s background, it’s important to ask standardized, skills-based questions that provide each candidate with a fair chance to stand out. This will help prevent your team from asking too many off-the-cuff questions that stem from confirmation bias. Consciously Unbiased offers a Diverse Hiring Certification to help train hiring managers on how to do this. In general, make sure you try to seek out information and opinions that differ from what you believe, and weigh all options before making a decision.

Recency Bias

Recency, or availability, bias is the human tendency to think that examples of things that come readily to mind, are more representative than is actually the case. Put more simply, this implicit bias occurs when we make decisions based on easy or incomplete ideas, which we do more often than we realize. The recency bias results from a cognitive shortcut; it’s the reliance on those things that we immediately think of to enable quick decisions and judgments. 

Someone who makes decisions based upon the last conversation they had is an example of someone who falls victim to recency bias. Another example of this type of unconscious bias is during the annual performance reviews, where one of the members of your team wrapped up a project within the last two weeks and did an amazing job. You might rate them higher because of recency bias, while other members of your team had successfully completed projects throughout the year that were similar too, if not even better. But because their performance wasn’t as recent and aren’t as easily recalled, their bonus isn’t as big. 

In the workplace, these problems can impact not only who gets stretch assignments, but also who gets promotions or bonuses too, like nominating a colleague whose name comes up often and whose name is common for an award or promotion.

How to break recency bias:

One way to help break recency bias is to consult someone with a different viewpoint, or different way of thinking from our own, and ask for their read on a situation. It’s a known fact that taking the time to consult multiple opinions, or going to someone who thinks differently, will not only give you contrasting information and ideas, but will slow down your decision-making processes, so you don’t make an automatic decision. 

Generational bias

Generational bias, or ageism, is when we have stereotypes about specific generations, such as all baby boomers are bad with technology, or all Generation Zers are lazy. This can impact how we write job descriptions and who we hire for positions.

The truth is that we’re missing out on large parts of the talent pool when we let ageism color who we hire, and we may be less likely to hire the most loyal or best person for the job. For example, older job seekers account for about 20% of the workforce, and the expectation is that will increase by 15%, where workers aged 50 and older will make up 35% of the workforce. 

Although ‘explicit age’ restrictions in job positions have mostly stopped, subtle discrimination toward older workers still exists today with words and phrases in job descriptions asking for “the recent college grad” “high energy” the “tech savvy” “digital native.” Digital native describes anyone who grew up using digital technology, or anyone born in the 80s or after. 

Also, be aware that there can also be ‘reverse genera-tional bias’ against younger talent. For example, commonly found words and phrases like seeking “mature” or “supplements retirement income.” This phrasing indicates a preference for older workers.

How to break generational bias:

One way to avoid ageism in recruiting people for jobs is to write inclusive job descriptions. Apps such as Text.io can help, which uses AI to analyze job descriptions to help neutralize language that might deter a diverse set of candidates. For example, terms such as “digital native” and “recent college grad” may prevent many older workers from applying.

Consciously Unbiased helps organizations break all types of unconscious bias in the workplace. See how our DEI Training can help you meet your inclusion goals.


Sara Munjack

As the Director of Content at Consciously Unbiased, Holly Corbett is fueling inclusion through storytelling to build a passionate community and creating experiences inside organizations to transform workplace culture.
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