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Understanding and overcoming unconscious bias in the workplace

5 minute read

Understanding and overcoming unconscious bias in the workplace

By: Sovereign Insurance

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In workplaces around the world, the message has been received loud and clear: Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is fundamental to success. According to a recent global study, an overwhelming 93% of business leaders view DE&I as more important now than at the beginning of 2020. More than half said their DE&I efforts largely contribute to their business success, up from 22% three years ago.1

While many companies have taken concrete actions to eliminate racism, sexism, and discrimination in the workplace, and create more inclusive cultures, a blind spot may be impeding some of their efforts: unconscious bias (also called implicit bias or hidden bias). 

As the term implies, unconscious bias is an association, judgment, or attitude about a person or group that operates beyond our control and awareness, informs our perceptions, and influences our decision-making and behaviour.2 

Experts say everyone holds unconscious biases – it’s just how our brains are wired. Since the human brain processes millions of bits of information per second, the brain creates mental shortcuts by seeking out patterns to categorize information. Through this cognitive process, every individual develops preferences or biases.3

Some of the most common types of unconscious bias are: 

  • Gender bias – a stereotypical belief about someone based solely on their gender
  • Affinity bias – a preference towards people who have similar qualities, backgrounds, or viewpoints
  • Beauty bias – forming opinions about someone based on their appearance and physical characteristics 
  • Conformity bias – the desire to agree with anything a group of people says, despite one’s own opinions4

While not all unconscious biases are bad (some can be useful to make quick decisions), they can be a problem in the workplace at all levels, from recruitment and promotion outcomes to interactions between colleagues, managers, and customers. For example, a manager may pass up a new mom for promotion because they fear she won’t have the time or energy to juggle work and family responsibilities, a manager may hire someone for a new role because they went to the same university, or business leaders may provide ideas about a project and encourage others to agree with them. Without action, unconscious biases can hurt employee morale and lead to low retention rates.5

The question is, if these biases happen outside our control, how can employees check them at the door? Although we can’t eliminate our unconscious biases altogether, we can learn how to recognize them and mitigate their impact in the workplace. 

Raise awareness and understanding: As with most things, being aware of unconscious bias is the first step. Continue to educate yourself on the many types of unconscious bias and how these biases manifest in the workplace – and share your learning. Educate and train employees and colleagues on the types of unconscious bias, the negative consequences that can arise, and how to avoid making decisions based on these biases.6

Challenge your thinking: Before you react to a situation or make a decision, get into the habit of asking yourself, “Why am I thinking this way?”7 Take the time to review your decisions (especially those related to people and their careers) and assess your own biases. Ask others for feedback and ask yourself if your decision would be different if it involved a person from a different social identity group.8

Refine your recruitment process: Unconscious bias often shows up in the recruitment process. For example, a job description might be geared towards a certain age or gender, a manager might form an opinion about a candidate based on their looks, or someone on the team might favour a candidate because they share a similar interest outside of work. To remove unconscious bias, experts advise: using inclusive language in job postings; using a “blind” process to review resumes, which focuses on qualifications rather than demographic characteristics; and conducting standardized interviews with defined questions and scorecards.9 

Go beyond your comfort zone: Involve yourself with people and groups with different backgrounds to learn about their perspectives and experiences, and encourage others to do the same. Having these conversations in the workplace allows people to network, learn, and grow with colleagues they might not have otherwise met.10 Moving beyond your comfort zone and getting to know people on an individual level can also help you combat personal biases.11

There are plenty more ways to address unconscious bias, but every step can help mitigate the negative effects on your organization and help you see the benefits in plain sight. 


1 Heindrick & Struggles, “Employees at the Centre: What it Takes to Lead on DE&I Now,” Sept. 29, 2022 
2 Catalyst, “Understanding Unconscious Bias: Ask Catalyst Express,” May 25, 2022
3 Everfi, “5 Unexpected Unconscious Bias Examples
4,5 Indeed, “5 Types of Unconscious Bias & How to Eliminate Them
6 Allegis Group, “Unconscious Bias in the Workplace,” Jan. 3, 2020
7 The Law Society, “5 steps to reduce unconscious bias your workplace,” April 9, 2018 
8 Wealth Strategies Journal, “Kathleen Nalty: Outsmart Your Unconscious Biases,” Sept. 3, 2021
9 SHRM, “7 Practical Ways to Reduce Bias in your Hiring Process,” April 19, 2018
10 GHJ, “How to Combat Unconscious Bias and Create an Inclusive Culture,” April 11, 2022 
11 National Institutes of Health, “Unconscious Bias and the Public Servant: What can we do to overcome unconscious bias?” Feb. 1, 2023