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5 Types of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace and How to Avoid Them

Unconscious Bias - E-Learning

Manager is selecting one virtual worker in a lineup of eight differently colored male employee icons. Concept for multiculturalism, equal opportunity employment and a business case for diversity.

Unconscious bias, sometimes known as implicit bias, relates to our automatic attitudes and the conditioned stereotyping that we subconsciously apply to another person, or collective groups of people, and it can play a detrimental role in workplace relationships.

Recognizing unconscious bias in ourselves is the first step to overcoming it so below we’ve listed the five most common types of unconscious bias found in the workplace, with tips on how to avoid and overcome them.



What is Unconscious Bias?

Before we look at the different types of unconscious bias, we should consider what unconscious bias actually is, how it affects us, and how to recognize it.

Unconscious bias refers to the internal prejudice, preference and predilection that evolves over the course of our lifetime and which we tend to inherit and learn from our family and peers.

Unconscious biases are at play all the time and can affect factors such as personal buying choices, hiring selections, the people we choose as friends, and even negotiations, so it is important to be able to recognize them in ourselves and evaluate how we are being influenced by them both in a positive or negative sense.

Biases develop over our lifetime and can be grouped into some of the following categories:

• Racial bias
• Gender bias
• Educational bias
• Age bias
• Social bias

For example, a gender bias exists where there is a pay gap found between men and women, and an educational bias might include preference of a candidate for hiring due to the university they attended.


Types of Unconscious Bias

It is thought that unconscious biases have evolved to allow us to process information more quickly – the human brain is only capable of processing around 40 pieces of information subconsciously in a second, yet is subject to millions in any given moment, so we learn to make snap decisions to ensure our safety and survival. However, when we transfer this to a modern context, it can lead to rash, instinctive decision-making processes that aren’t necessarily the ‘best choice’.

The following list highlights 5 common unconscious bias types and gives useful information regarding how to maintain awareness and overcome unconscious bias in the workplace.



1. The Halo Effect

This is also known as the ‘Halo Error’ and highlights the tendency to allow positive impressions of a person, or group of people, to positively affect and influence future decisions and opinions.

For example, if a work colleague performs well on a specific project, it is assumed they will always do so and a type of favouritism can occur. We place a ‘halo’ around their head and make future assumptions based on a previous good turn.

This doesn’t sound like it may have detrimental effects. However, our brains tend to apply this ‘halo’ across the board which can lead to errors in judgement.

To avoid falling into this particular trap, monitor your judgements regarding specific groups of people, of a particular individual, and watch your reactions.

Do you tend to favour a particular group or individual without good cause?

Are your thoughts accurate to reality?

What assumptions are you making?

Asking these questions gives an opportunity to assess our personal decisions and ensure they are accurate and fair.



2. The Horns Effect

This is the exact opposite of the Halo Effect.

It occurs when our perception of an individual, or collective group, is negatively influenced by a single ‘bad’ trait.

Our unconscious bias supplants reality and creates a tendency which encourages us to look negatively upon someone due to our own pre-existing ideas about them.

For example, if an employee uses a phrase, or language, we don’t like, it can lead to us creating a generalization about their character or work ethic which is unsupported in reality and we are in danger of noticing every annoying thing they do and say.

As with the Halo Effect, it is worth monitoring thoughts and feelings around specific people if you think you may have fallen into this unconscious bias trap.



3. Confirmation Bias

This is a well-studied type of unconscious bias which links to our favouring one thing over another just because it fits with our social conditioning and pre-existing beliefs.

It can be applied in the case of racial, age and gender biases and affects decisions based around gathering, interpreting and recollecting information.

For example, when going through the hiring process, it is often found that if we like a candidate, we may ask them easier questions which would support our initial thought that they are the right person for the job.

The same principle applies when choosing colours for marketing materials, completing market research, or selecting an employee for promotion.

To avoid this unconscious bias try asking neutral questions, play devil’s advocate (just to try it on for size) or ask a colleague to critique your thinking process and evaluation.



4. The Affinity Bias

This type of unconscious bias can have a huge effect on workplace demographics, including, diversity in age, gender and race.

The Affinity Bias relates to our attraction for people who are similar to us; those who share our cultural background, life experiences, personal interests, and so on, which can have serious implications for diversity and inclusion within the workplace.

To combat Affinity Bias, cultural awareness training and unconscious bias training can prove highly beneficial, as they explore the values of difference, highlight connections, assess personal beliefs and teach effective methods for overcoming preconceived notions and ideas.

It can also be beneficial to use the following tips:

• Find common ground with people who don’t share your culture, religion, social standing, and so on
• When hiring, use a diverse range of interviewers
• Ask for other people’s opinions and perspectives – and listen to the responses
Take a test to discover your level of Affinity Bias
• Avoid ‘group think’ which can develop when surrounded with only similar people
• Live outside of your comfort zone and try new experiences. Look for ways to make connections with people who don’t share your race, religion, gender, and so on.



5. Conformity Bias

It is hard to imagine anyone that hasn’t been exposed to, or experienced, this type of bias.

Conformity bias is the tendency to behave in a similar way to those people around us, even if it is at odds with our own beliefs and opinions.

For example, in a busy meeting, it often seems easier to agree with the boss rather than pushing back and putting your opposing opinion out there for everyone to assess.

Within the workplace, key decisions might be made without proper assessment due to conformity bias and it can seriously hamper development and creativity if everyone agrees all the time!

Healthy debates are great for pushing boundaries, exploring new ideas, encouraging creativity and assessing methods, so encouraging employees to voice their honest opinions, is a must.


There are many elements to unconscious bias and it can be difficult to know which affect us as they tend to influence those emotions, thoughts and feelings which feel instinctual, rather than conscious choices.

However, overcoming these biases can lead to improved working relationships, greater engagement and productivity, and more content employees, all of which are good for business!

For further information regarding Cultural Awareness Training or Unconscious Bias Training, please contact us.