Unconscious bias at work – Are you a victim or accused?

understanding unconscious bias at work

You may not need to think too hard to answer this. While I will consciously refrain from saying all, a very large majority of us have been a victim of unconscious bias at work. Not just victims, we all can as easily be accused of being unconsciously biased against someone.

That may sound as a tall claim to some. But believe me when I say its true. Unconscious bias at work is very common. It impacts the way we hire, promote or socialize at work.

Did you know that there are more than 150 identified unconscious biases. Biases can be based on skin color, gender, age, height, weight, accents, religion, marital status, parental status, educational qualification, race, disability status and many more.

Stereotyping is a form of bias. How often we stereotype others? How often have you been “stereotyped”?

Unconscious bias in hiring
Comic by Liza Donnelly

Unconscious Bias at Work Statistics

  • A study by Queensland University found out that “blond women’s salaries were 7 percent higher than women who were brunettes or redheads”
  • Duke University found out in a research that “mature-faced people had a career advantage over baby-faced people (people with large, round eyes, high eyebrows and a small chin)”
  • A study by Yale University found out that “male and female scientists were more likely to hire men, rank them higher in competency than women, and pay them $4000 more per year than women”
  • 58 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are just shy of six feet tall, while less than 15 percent of the male population are the same height

Women can easily testify to the fact why they struggle more to climb the corporate ladder or gain entry into the C-suite. A survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2015 found that 40 percent of the respondents said “there were double standards for women who wanted entry into the C-suite”.

“Gender bias forced me to quit Quiksilver’s board” – Liz Dolan

Liz Dolan, CMO of Fox International Channels, opted out of a board position at Quiksilver due to “gender bias”. This is one of the most common unconscious bias at work.

Liz, in an article that ran in Fortune, said that “unconscious gender bias was the reason she felt compelled to resign after serving as the board’s lone female representative for 18 months”.

Why do we need to minimize bias in the workplace?

Eliminating bias does not seem to be a realistic goal. Bias is rooted in the brain. One could say that the brain, based on previous learnings, experiences and interactions, learns to group or compartmentalize. It is similar to creating tags or categories. The tags are then “unconsciously” applied to entire groups. This unconscious grouping helps our brain makes quick decisions.

While we cannot eliminate, there is always a considerable scope to minimize bias in the workplace. We need to be conscious to minimize unconscious bias.


Bias for obvious reasons seems out of place in an “equal opportunity” workplace. How can we justify hiring or promoting or paying equal salary to someone based on race, gender, skin color, height or weight?

How to minimize unconscious bias at work?

If we want to uncover and minimize bias in the workplace, there is no alternative to providing proper awareness training to employees and putting processes and structures in place that can identify unconscious biases.

“The first step to addressing unconscious biases in the workplace is to acknowledge that everyone has them, and this can be done by offering awareness training” (Stephens A, 2015).

In May 2014, Google admitted that when it comes to diversity in the workplace, it could do better. They went public with some dismal diversity numbers. 70 percent of Google’s 56000 employees were men, only 3 percent were Latino and only 2 percent were African American. Google blamed the lack of diversity, in part, on unconscious bias. They initiated workshops and hands-on sessions as part of their “bias-busting” initiative.

The 9 point checklist to minimize bias at work

  • Learn what unconscious biases are
  • Assess which biases are most likely to affect you
  • Figure out where biases are likely to affect your company
  • Modernize your approach to hiring
  • Let data inform your decisions
  • Bring diversity into your hiring process
  • Encourage team members to speak up about biases
  • Hold employees accountable
  • Set diversity and inclusion goals

How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias by Valerie Alexander

The human brain is a remarkable achievement in evolution. Unfortunately, the brain activity that kept the human species alive for millions of years is the same brain activity that keeps us from achieving equality today. Author, speaker and CEO, Valerie Alexander, explains how the human brain instinctively reacts when encountering the unexpected, like saber-toothed tigers or female tech execs, and proposes that if we have the courage to examine our own behavior when faced with the unfamiliar, we can take control of our expectations, and by doing so, change the world. Valerie Alexander is the Founder and CEO of Goalkeeper Media.

By Nitesh Verma

Founder - Business Management Blog. I am an independent business strategy consultant, helping companies take data driven business decisions. My mission is to find and implement simple solutions for complex business problems.


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