Increasing diversity in today’s workplace is a known way to bring in new ideas and improve overall performance. However, when it comes to recruiting, hiring and training employees, it’s easy to get tripped up by bias, meaning an existing prejudice for or against something (a thing, person or group) compared with another, in a way that ends up being unfair.

There are plenty of discussions going on about racism and sexism in the workplace, but bias is often invisible, an unconscious habit of the brain to prefer one thing above another. It’s this kind of unconscious bias that can be dangerous in the workplace.

Where Does Bias Come From?

This implicit bias comes from our subconscious. Our brain makes connections based on what we see and hear daily, and eventually uses shortcuts when processing these types of thoughts. Over time, the brain may make assumptions based on the situations and messages that exist in our society, and these pathways may become shortcuts. For example, even people who have studied historical racism for years will still have unconscious biases in some cases due to society’s existing racism.

Types of Unconscious Bias

There are a number of types of unconscious bias, but the most common five types are:

  • Affinity Bias: A tendency to favor people similar to yourself, this bias occurs when you find something in common with the other individual or some kind of connection. It manifests in more pleasant behavior — relaxing, smiling and generally being more accepting of social awkwardness.

  • Halo Effect: When one amazing thing about a person ends up coloring everything else that they do and work on, that’s the halo effect. This manifests as a tendency to excuse the other person’s mistakes, since they have this one great thing working for them.

  • Horns Effect: If there’s something awful about a person you just can’t overlook, you’re becoming prey to the horns effect: where one negative trait or opinion colors every interaction with that person moving forward. This manifests in increased judgment; for example, just because you don’t like a person doesn’t mean they’re doing bad work or that they’re bad at their job.

  • Attribution Bias: When looking at other people’s accomplishments, we tend to judge their successes to be the result of good luck or chance, whereas their failures are due to their intrinsic behavior of personality. That’s attribution bias: giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt, but assuming others simply got lucky.

  • Confirmation Bias: This bias appears when we look to gather information to support preconceived notions that come from nothing, rather than letting the information stand on its own. It’s the human tendency to only look for information that supports our opinions and disregard anything that challenges them.

Bias Examples in the Workplace

For example, say you’re given two resumes from individuals with equal skill sets, one titled John Smith and one titled Ramesh Sandarkan. If you are a white American, you may feel an affinity bias for the candidate who seems to also be a white American; if you’re Indian or of a minority culture, you may feel a fondness for the candidate whose name is not a traditional American name. Without even looking at the resumes, you’ve already connected a subconscious opinion to these two candidates.

The best way to avoid the trap of bias is to acknowledge that it exists and to partake in formal training to recognize, avoid and counter these existing biases. Consider teammates as equals, and when doing any kind of evaluations, draw opinions from a mixed team of evaluators. Letting unconscious bias reign can accidentally turn away perfectly qualified candidates with the ability to bring significant change. Awareness is the first step to combating these biases that can limit diversity.