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Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Learn more about how bias can impact the workplace.

This page discusses bias in the workplace. It reviews the roots and costs of unconscious bias. It discusses the impact of bias on people with disabilities and historically underserved communities and provides action steps to address unconscious bias.

What is bias?

Bias is an unjust and unfair preference (or prejudice) toward one person, group, characteristic, or thing over another. Bias develops directly or indirectly through everyday lived experiences and can be conscious (explicit) or unconscious (implicit).

According to the National Center for Cultural Competence at Georgetown University, conscious bias means someone is aware of their feelings and attitudes about a particular person or group they are biased for or against, and their behavior toward that person or group tends to reflect those beliefs.

Conversely, unconscious bias functions as an attitude outside of a person’s awareness and control. It is subconscious, or implicit, and influences actions more than conscious bias. Unconscious bias impacts a person’s behavior toward another person or group, but negative behavior tends to be less obvious and often results in the exclusion of the person or group against whom they are biased.

While organizations often take steps to recognize and prevent conscious bias in the workplace, unconscious bias can be more difficult to address and eliminate.

What are the roots of unconscious bias?

People are hard-wired to sort others into groups or categories. This is not something we actively think about doing; we do so automatically. The process of social categorization is an attempt to make the world, and the people in it, easier to understand and more relatable. We do this to try to predict how people may behave and anticipate what might happen when we interact with them.

While social categorization may help us navigate the world, it also comes at a cost. In the workplace, for instance, managers might tend to hire people with similar physical characteristics to them and choose them for advancement opportunities over other employees. As another example, if an employee with a disability is hired, they may not be promoted because of unsubstantiated assumptions about their abilities. Bias impacts many groups, but historically underserved communities, such as people with disabilities and people of color, are often the most negatively affected.

Unconscious bias stems from the way people learn to perceive others. It often builds on the misconceptions of race, gender, religion, disability, or sexual orientation that people learn from their families or social environments.

Bias against disabled people

Research tells us that while unconscious or implicit bias against some people has reduced dramatically over the past 14 years, unconscious or implicit bias against people with disabilities has remained relatively constant, dropping only 3% over that same period. According to Access Living, ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. As with any form of discrimination, ableist ideas are applied to the entire group of people with disabilities. Ableism furthers harmful stereotypes and assumptions about what people can or cannot do. While many people in the disability community point to a lack of accessibility features in the environment as disabling, the ableist perspective focuses on the need to “fix” people with disabilities so they can adapt to an environment that is not accessible.

What are the consequences of unconscious bias?

Research has demonstrated the real-world consequences of unconscious bias. When researchers at Rutgers University and Syracuse University submitted applications for accounting positions from candidates whose resumes and cover letters disclosed a disability, they found that employers were 26% less likely to say they were interested in the applicants who disclosed a disability, even though their qualifications were the same as those who did not disclose a disability. Other studies have revealed similar results for candidates who were presumed to be Black based on the name used on their application or resume.

Discrimination in the hiring process is not the only consequence of unconscious bias. Ableism appears in organizations around their reluctance to comply with disability rights laws or organizational accessibility requirements. The idea that providing accommodations to applicants or employees with disabilities is “special treatment” is a form of ableism. Additional examples include scheduling meetings in inaccessible locations, failing to offer accommodations in advance of training opportunities, or not honoring specific accommodation requests for applicants or employees.

Pay gaps are prevalent in the workplace for people with disabilities. Research also indicates bias impacts equal pay for women and advancement opportunities for people of color.

Deloitte’s 2019 State of Inclusion survey notes consequences of unconscious bias related to workplace engagement and productivity. 60% of respondents reported the presence of bias in their workplace based on gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, or military status. In addition:

  • 84% of respondents who experienced bias at work felt that it negatively affected their happiness, confidence, and well-being to some extent.
  • 70% of respondents who experienced bias said it negatively impacted their engagement.

Unconscious bias often affects employees’ sense of belonging at work. This has everyday implications for people with disabilities in the workplace. For example, employers may:

  • Exclude them from meetings.
  • Disregard them when they share ideas or ask for opinions.
  • Leave them out of conversations in the workplace.
  • Deny them access to valuable feedback from managers.
  • Overlook them when it comes to learning, training, or advancement opportunities.

These subtle actions send a message and affect the performance and productivity of employees with disabilities and other historically underserved groups.

How does bias affect people with intersecting identities?

“Intersecting identities,” or “intersectionality,” is the concept that a person’s identity consists of multiple, intersecting factors including but not limited to gender identity, gender expression, race, ethnicity, class, religion, sexual orientation, sexual expression, and disability. Intersectionality recognizes that identity markers (e.g., “woman” and “Black”) do not exist independently of each other, rather they inform each other. People with intersecting identities may face multiple forms of marginalization and, as a result, experience additional barriers.

Bias in the workplace is different for everyone who experiences it, based on their intersecting identities. For example, a Black woman may experience gender discrimination and racism. She will likely experience gender discrimination differently from a white woman and racism differently from a Black man. In the same way, a Black woman with a disability may experience additional biases different from that of a Black woman without a disability.

What action steps can employers take to overcome unconscious bias?

There are several action steps employers can take to address unconscious bias.

  • Ensure leadership steers the conversation. As with all successful strategies for improving inclusion at work, leadership must serve as a model of the company’s values; awareness of and action on unconscious bias starts at the top. Organizational leaders should start discussions on bias, its potential implications, and what can be done to address it. They should, then, ensure that the conversation includes their staff so that all voices, issues, and concerns are heard and addressed. It also helps if organizational leadership represents intersectionality.
  • Think first. By definition, we are unaware of unconscious bias, so it is important to always look at the facts before making assumptions about a person or situation. This means managers and leaders, as well as colleagues and coworkers, should acknowledge that unconscious bias exists and avoid making hasty judgements about others.
  • Bring in new collaborators. If there are new projects at work, try to assemble a diverse group of thought leaders to work on them. Research indicates that diverse teams have better work-related results because their multiple perspectives and backgrounds lead to broader discussions and more ideas and potential solutions to a problem.
  • Establish your ground rules. To ensure that all team members are given an opportunity to contribute and be heard by the group, set expectations for behavior. These expectations should ensure that all team members have a chance to contribute to discussions and all opinions are respected and considered. Ensure opportunities are divided among team members (i.e., a disabled team member is asked to present on the company’s behalf at a conference). Ensure that tasks are shared and not always assigned to the same person or group of people (i.e., women should not always be the notetakers). This way, leadership opportunities and routine tasks are equally distributed.
  • Train your team. While implicit bias and diversity training will not eliminate all bias in the workplace, it can help people recognize when and where they might be allowing it to inform their actions. Training will make unconscious bias more obvious and create awareness. Organizations must also take additional steps to break habits associated with bias to see lasting change.
  • Admit mistakes. No one is perfect. If you make a mistake, sincerely apologize, learn from each mistake you make, and encourage your team members to do the same.

In summary, research shows that addressing workplace bias makes it easier to attract new talent and retain current employees. This causes a chain reaction, improving productivity and financial gains. By addressing bias in the workplace, organizations help create an environment where employees feel a sense of belonging and know they are safe and valued for the perspectives they bring to the table.