If left unchecked, unconscious bias in the workplace can put your business at risk. Find out how to get it under control.

We all have biases about people that play out in our everyday interactions – and we’re often unaware of them.

These biases are rooted in our upbringing and life experiences, as well as external factors such as what we consume in movies, TV, social media and the news.

Unconscious bias in the workplace can be a problem when it negatively impacts people and their ability to thrive and succeed in their careers.

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias is a preference for or disinclination toward certain qualities in another person, such as (but not limited to):

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Age
  • National origin or ethnicity
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Religion
  • Accent
  • Physical characteristics, such as height, weight or perceived attractiveness
  • Socio-economic status
  • Education level

Bias is expressed in the way we think about (stereotype) and engage with others. It can be so ingrained within us and relied upon so automatically that we may  be unconscious or unaware of its effects on our thinking or engagement with others.

How can unconscious bias affect the work environment?

It can exist between peers occupying similar levels of an organizational hierarchy, as well as between managers and subordinates.

Managers’ unconscious biases can be especially troublesome, as they have the potential to lead to arbitrary advantages for some and unfair disadvantage for others.

Other undesirable consequences of unconscious bias in the workplace include:

  • Less-than-optimal to poor interpersonal relationships
  • Missed opportunities to learn perspectives, opinions and insights from diverse individuals
  • Lack of organizational diversity, including lack of diversity at leadership levels
  • Inability of some employees to advance upward in an organization through no fault of their own and for reasons unrelated to their work performance
  • Low morale and high turnover for those who suspect they’re on the receiving end of negative biases
  • Low productivity from those who suspect they’re on the receiving end of negative biases
  • Greater likelihood of discrimination complaints

Proactively, many companies have begun to implement measures to reduce unconscious bias when hiring. But what happens after a hire is made? How can business leaders avoid unconscious bias during the lifecycle of an employee’s employment?

6 do’s and don’ts to mitigate unconscious bias in the workplace

1. Don’t: Continually select the same go-to people – the employees you know best or personally like the most – for projects, exposure opportunities, advance trainings or promotions.

As a result, you might be overlooking the potential in other employees that you haven’t paid as much attention to. This can stir up resentment on your team and lead to questions about why some employees are given additional, career-boosting attention and resources.

People will notice if they’re continually passed over for “the favorites,” and they can become discouraged and disengaged.

Do: Select employees whose skill sets and expertise most closely align with what’s needed to take the project to completion.

Make a list of strengths and weaknesses for each person on your team, and then compare it to the project requirements and objectives.

Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Who will best be able to complete the necessary work and achieve the desired goals?
  • Who has the most relevant experience?
  • Is there a special business case for selecting an employee with a unique skill?
  • Who would benefit from serving on a particular project in terms of their training and career development?
  • Has anyone directly expressed interest to you in working on the project?

Create an environment in which all employees can gain access to resources that can aid them in their career progression, whether it’s:

  • Training and development courses
  • Reimbursement for continuing education
  • Mentorships
  • Opportunities to attend conferences or networking events

To find out what your employees want and engage with them on an individual level. This is often where leaders stumble: They don’t spend as much time talking to people they don’t connect with.

  • Meet with each employee to map out their career goals and how he or she would like to develop.
  • Check in with them periodically to assess their progress and determine what else they need.
  • Find out if there’s anything going on with them personally that could impact their performance or ability to achieve goals.

Rotate the employees you assign to projects, exposure opportunities and advance trainings to give everyone an opportunity to participate and to keep all team members engaged.

2. Don’t: Promote arbitrarily, without first announcing the opportunity to your entire team.

Other employees – especially those with similar experience, skills and company tenure could get upset that they weren’t made aware of or even considered for promotional opportunities.

They may wonder whether their colleague’s promotion was truly based on justifiable business reasons, such as performance, skill, merit or expertise; or if the promotional selection was biased or discriminatory. 

Do: Take these steps to avoid being accused of discrimination against others when promoting:

  • Have a promotion policy clearly outlining the selection criteria for each open position. This policy should include procedures for announcing available positions internally and explaining the steps to apply. The promotion process should be transparent and accessible to all employees.  Everyone should feel like they’re on the same playing field and know what it takes to be promoted.
  • Have regular, ongoing performance reviews so everyone understands where they stand.
  • Involve more than one decision-maker to ensure objectivity in the process and to aid in the prevention of one person’s unconscious biases clouding the outcome. (This is one example of when it’s helpful to have diverse leadership with broad perspectives.)
  • Document who applied, who was interviewed and why you did or didn’t promote a particular employee.

3. Don’t: Praise the same people repeatedly because you pay attention to their work more or be inconsistent in how you show appreciation for employees.

Employees who rarely, if ever, receive your praise can feel ignored and unappreciated compared to “the favorites.”

Do: Be consistent in how employees are praised and acknowledged.

Be mindful of whether you’re praising publicly or privately and apply the same method toward all team members. Remember, for many employees, recognition of the work they do is nearly as important to them as the work itself. Most people want to be acknowledged when they perform well.

Establish an employee-recognition program to set objective criteria for what constitutes praiseworthy behavior and what recognition entails.

Here are a few options in how you could choose to apply consistency:

  • Offer equal forms of praise to employees across the board. Decide whether you’ll recognize strong performers publicly in front of the entire team or privately, such as via email or in a one-on-one meeting.
  • Or, make it clear to everyone that you’ll recognize each individual publicly or privately in accordance with their personal preference – but be sure to ask everyone, document their preference and follow through.

If you take an extra step beyond words of praise and choose to give employees actual rewards – say, a performance bonus or an extra day off, this needs to be included in the recognition program or policy. Everyone needs to understand the available rewards and the criteria to earn them. Whenever an employee earns a reward, document why.

Encourage peer-to-peer recognition. Recognition from colleagues is just as powerful as managerial recognition. In this case, recognition is about what other members of the group – as opposed to a single manager – notice and choose to acknowledge.

4. Don’t: Be aloof with employees you don’t connect with as much as others.

This can cause employees to feel disliked, ignored or unsupported for reasons they don’t understand.

Do: Give everyone on your team equal attention.

Consistently solicit the input of each employee or give everyone the opportunity to speak up.

Establish an open-door policy in which all employees feel empowered to come speak with you about concerns or questions they have and seek face-to-face time with you.

The reality is, we’re all human and there will always be people we’re naturally more drawn toward. But there should be a level of balance in the way we engage with others. Leaders should display emotional intelligence, which in the case of unconscious bias in the workplace involves:

  • Being able to identify when they engage with others differently
  • Empathizing with how their actions can make others feel
  • Taking actions to mitigate bad feelings in others

5. Don’t: Discipline employees purely on a subjective basis.

This opens you up to complaints about unfair treatment – which very well could have merit if you’re allowing unconscious biases to influence your decision making.

Do: Document all workplace policies in your employee handbook. 

Each employee should receive a copy of the handbook and sign a form as acknowledgment of receipt of the handbook.

The enforcement of these policies, including the disciplinary process for violation of the policies, must be transparent and consistent. As a general rule, discipline your favorite or top-performing employee the same as your least favorite or lowest-performing employee.

That’s not to say that there’s no room for flexibility. For example, an employee could have a legitimate reason for attendance issues or a dip in performance quality. Another employee could behave in such an appalling way – for example, physical assault or theft – that you could bypass the initial steps of the disciplinary process and terminate them on the spot.

But these instances – as well as each disciplinary conversation with an employee – must be thoroughly documented to explain any perceived disparities in treatment. It’s also a good idea to include another party, such as an HR professional, in the disciplinary process to diminish your potential for unconscious bias in the workplace. 

6. Don’t: Host a meeting or social gathering, and then fail to invite all employees who should be there.

Leaders who do this look like they’re trying to exclude people, even if it was unintentional.

Do: Be inclusive.

Make this a rule:

  • An employee who has a business reason to attend a meeting needs to be invited. Consider who’s relevant to the discussion and who will bring the most value. Be prepared to explain why meeting attendees were chosen or excluded.
  • If the leadership of the company or a department is planning and facilitating an all-team meeting or a social event, all employees across the company or within the department should be invited.

Informal gatherings among colleagues – lunch outings or after-work happy hours – are more of a gray area. It will always be the case that people who connect will choose to hang out together in their free time.

As a leader, you’ll want to make sure that this behavior doesn’t lead to the formation of cliques in the workplace, which can make those who aren’t in the circle feel left out.  

Reach out to those employees you may not have otherwise invited to lunch or happy hour to get to know them better on a personal level. Encourage your team members to do the same with their peers, with the goal of building relationships and camaraderie.

The challenge: Identifying and confronting your specific unconscious biases in the workplace

How do you recognize biases if you’re unaware of them to begin with?

Regular participation in diversity and inclusion training, where identifying unconscious biases is a part of the training curriculum, is one way to do so.

Unconscious bias training will offer techniques in uncovering specific biases and may even involve taking tests that reveal mental associations that we may otherwise be unwilling or unable to detect. One popular example of such a test is the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT).

While it may be uncomfortable at first within your team, continually engaging in conversations that encourage introspection and reflection may also help to confront and minimize unconscious bias in the workplace. 

Summing it all up

Overcoming unconscious bias in the workplace can be a challenge because it’s often an enemy we don’t see or have an awareness of within ourselves. But for those who suspect they’re on the receiving end of bias, it can lead to many problems with morale, engagement and turnover, and be a prime source of discrimination charges.

As a general, ongoing practice, think through the ways in which you engage with team members to assess how you can mitigate the appearance of preferential (or unfair) treatment and infuse more neutrality in these interactions.

To uncover your specific biases and increase your own self-awareness, consider participating in regular training and taking a test aimed at revealing implicit associations.

For more information on becoming a more effective, fair and empowering leader, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.