4 types of unconscious bias in the workplace that you need to know

Whether or not we give it much thought, factors such as our upbringing, prior experiences, and knowledge and understanding of diversity and inclusion may all play a role in moulding our decision-making.

Sometimes this is not a serious problem. At other times these factors can result in us being discriminatory (which is unlawful) and can create many problems, for individuals, groups of people and businesses. We have a responsibility to be aware of our biases and know how to address them in day-to-day situations. The good news is, we can learn the practical skills that are needed to tackle our biases.

According to diversity and inclusion specialists EW Group, there are over 150 types of unconscious bias, many of which can affect the workplace severely. A diverse and culturally accepting workplace is an integral part of every successful business and recognising unconscious bias will help you minimise discrimination in recruitment and promotion, performance, management and many other aspects of organisational life. Here are four distinct types of unconscious bias that you need to be aware of.

1.   Sex bias

Sex inequality is not a new phenomenon — the earliest examples of male dominance can be traced back 10,000 years. Even though we’ve come a long way towards greater parity, we are still far from achieving it. Women still earn 20% less than men, and part-time workers who are mainly women earn even less than men who work part-time.

Unconscious bias consists of instinctive, ingrained stereotypes which often lead to prejudice and discrimination. Stereotypes that suggest that ‘all women are like that’ or ‘all men are like that’ often result in the career development of women and men being affected adversely. In addition to sexism, the term “glass ceiling” is often used to refer to the invisible but pervasive barriers to female advancement in the workplace. A long hours culture for example disproportionately affects those with caring responsibilities, and caring responsibilities are usually carried out by women. So, a long hours culture may affect all staff, but disproportionately affect women.

The gender wage gap is a significant consequence of this type of discrimination. A 2021 study by The Times found that not only are women still paid less than men on a global scale, but the disparity is even widening in UK companies. According to Action Aid, this is because “women are often trapped in low-skilled jobs with low wages, perceived as well-suited to women’s manual dexterity, attention to detail and caring nature — assumed to be every woman’s traits.”

2.   The halo effect

Coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike in the 1920s, the halo effect describes the process where we can form a favourable picture of a person on the basis of just one of their characteristics, — such as posture, clothing, a shared ethnicity, or perceived attractiveness.

The halo effect intertwines with beauty bias — the social behaviour where personal appearance can be confused with rates of success and competence. For the conventionally attractive employee, being perceived as good-looking really does pay — a Harvard study found that “attractive” candidates can receive a significantly higher salary of about 10 to 15% more than workers of “below-average” beauty. Concepts of ‘beauty’ often correlate with certain ages and ethnicities and the ability to buy expensive clothes.

In addition to being extremely unethical, the halo effect can lead to less qualified candidates being hired to open positions, to the great disadvantage of a business.

3.   The horns effect

The horns effect, on the other hand, is a prejudice that emerges when a snap judgement is made on the basis of an irrelevant attribute such as sex, ethnicity or age. Also referred to as the reverse-halo effect, this phenomenon is closely related to negativity bias — “our tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events.”

This type of unconscious bias is omnipresent in recruitment and selection processes and is often driven by negative stereotypes and social conditioning — the ideologies we adopt from the world around us. It can lead to problematic assumptions being created, such as an applicant wearing casual interview attire labelled as sloppy, or older candidates branded as less ambitious, having less commitment or being less adaptable.

The horns effect can also arise in many workplace scenarios, including task delegation and performance or salary reviews, which can lead to fewer deserving workers being promoted and more deserving employees being unfairly kept in lower positions.

4.   Affinity bias

The term affinity bias is used in neuropsychology to describe how we frequently gravitate towards people who we feel share our interests, beliefs, or values. The phenomenon can cause employers to have a more favourable opinion of someone with similar characteristics to them or other employees.

This perceived rapport can be linked to something known as cultural fit — whether or not a candidate shares the values and goals of an organisation — and is highly influential in recruitment. In fact, according to research, 84% of employers say that cultural fit has become a key factor in searching for new employees.

However, if not monitored, affinity bias can create a workforce that is overwhelmingly homogeneous. While there are certain advantages to homogeneity, research has shown that clan culture is linked to high levels of employee turnover — often to the detriment of the business. Greater diversity on the other hand, is also proven to be linked to greater creativity or innovation.