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Mitigating the Impact of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

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After viewing the video clip would you conclude that Jim harbors any biases against single mothers? If asked that question, Jim’s response likely would be a resounding “no.” But regardless of whether Jim recognizes it or is conscious of it, his statements suggest that he does not think single mothers could successfully manage high-level leadership positions. Jim’s bias may be unconscious, but it still has the same damaging impact on his work relationships and environment and, if it remains unchecked, could lead to a discrimination claim. So, what can we do to mitigate the negative effect of our unconscious biases if we are not aware of them? Through training and other means, we can gain a better understanding of what forms our unconscious biases take and the impact of such biases in the workplace.

Defining Unconscious Biases

Every single person has unconscious biases. We all intrinsically have unconscious beliefs about different groups, based on our backgrounds and life experiences. Unconscious biases have been defined as “mental shortcuts” used to categorize information, “based on social norms and stereotypes.”1 Our brains, according to one researcher, receive 11 million pieces of information at any one time, and yet only can process about 40 bits of that information.2 Our brains therefore naturally create these unconscious shortcuts, based on experience and assumptions. Our unconscious biases are reflexive responses, outside our awareness, to different situations. They can be based on many different characteristics including age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, weight, appearance, educational background, where someone grew up, or even whether someone is extroverted or introverted.

The Impact of Unconscious Biases

While some unconscious biases can be positive, they overall tend to have a detrimental impact on the workplace. They can negatively affect morale, teamwork, and diversity. Unconscious biases can affect all aspects of employment decisions from recruitment and hiring to performance evaluations, work assignments, and promotions. When subconscious preferences in decision-making impact legally protected groups or individuals, those preferences not only have a negative impact on diversity, but can also lead to claims of discrimination or harassment. 

Numerous studies have underscored the negative impact unconscious biases can have on the workplace. In one study, researchers mailed prospective employers thousands of résumés that were identical except for one distinction: some résumés had stereotypical white names and others had stereotypical African-American names. A résumé with a “white” name was 50 percent more likely to result in a callback interview.3 Another study found that women who identified as mothers were 79% less likely to be hired and half as likely to be promoted, and were offered an average of $11,000 less in salary.4 Given the impact of unconscious biases, the challenge is how to become more aware of our biases so we can mitigate the impact in the workplace.

Tackling Unconscious Biases in the Workplace

Increased Self-Awareness       

People do not like to think of themselves as harboring biases, but the first step in combating unconscious bias is to identify what unconscious biases we may have. Thinking generally about what information makes you feel more or less sympathetic toward different individuals (e.g., are they parents, of a different religion, have a similar upbringing) can be helpful in recognizing what unconscious biases you may have. 

The goal, of course, is to become more aware of our biases so we can be certain that they are not negatively impacting decision-making at work. Part of that process is to critically evaluate your decision-making in the workplace and look for patterns that may be revealing. Do you typically assign the same people to work on certain projects? Why do you select those particular individuals? Do they have anything in common? Are you drawn to people who are like you in some way, such as having attended the same college or grown up in the same area? Which people are you not selecting?

Language plays a role in our biases as well. Becoming more self-aware of the language you use when evaluating individuals for promotions and other opportunities, as well as in performance evaluations, can be useful in uncovering potential unconscious biases. A 2014 study reviewed 248 performance evaluations from women and men in the tech industry. The study found that women received more critical feedback than the men (87.9% percent as compared to 58.9%), and that such feedback more likely included negative language about personality traits, such as describing them as bossy, abrasive, irrational, or emotional, whereas the same language was not used to describe the male employees.5 Indeed, the study found that 76% of the critical feedback given to women contained criticism related to personality traits, and that only 2% of the men’s critical reviews contained similar comments.

Fostering an environment where employees are comfortable openly communicating about these issues is also important in combatting unconscious biases. Providing a means for employees and managers to be able to discuss these issues, without fear of repercussions, can help uncover what unconscious biases may be impacting the workplace. Since it is difficult for people to see their own unconscious biases, it is important to learn from others. The more employees feel comfortable discussing these issues, the better able companies will be to mitigate the impact of unconscious biases.


Providing a forum for openly discussing unconscious biases and their impact on the workplace is key. No company is immune from the effect of unconscious biases. Many tech companies, including Facebook and Google, have given their employees unconscious bias training, in part as an effort to increase diversity. As Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, states, “[o]ne of the most important things we can do to promote diversity in the workplace is to correct for the unconscious bias that all of us have.”6

While many companies already provide employees with harassment and discrimination training, adding a specific component on rooting out or addressing unconscious bias can only help. By encouraging managers and employees to more fully understand their own potential biases and how they may impact their decisions within the workplace, and allowing for open discussion of the issues in a comfortable environment, unconscious bias training helps companies achieve a more diverse and respectful workplace.


While understanding our biases—unconscious or otherwise—is not always comfortable or easy, it is a key component in creating a more respectful and discrimination-free workplace. While it may not be possible to eliminate all unconscious bias in the workplace, employers can mitigate some of its damaging impact by: fostering dialogue about these issues, critically looking at their decision-making and policies to see where unconscious biases may creep in, and by incorporating training focused on rooting out unconscious biases in the workplace.

1Horace McCormick, The Real Effects of Unconscious Bias in the Workplace,
2Timothy Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious.
3Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.
4Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik, Getting a Job: Is there a Motherhood Penalty? March 2007, Chicago Journals
5Kieran Snyder, The abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men and women described differently in reviews, Aug. 25, 2014, Fortune, and Tara Mohr, Learning to Love Criticism, Sept. 27, 2014, The New York Times,
6Lauren Hockenson, Sheryl Sandberg articulates the diversity Silicon Valley is chasing after, Dec. 15, 2015, TNW,