Understand the Impact of Unconscious Bias on Employee Performance

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Identify bias and unconscious (implicit) bias.
  • Describe the impact of unconscious bias.

Bias: What It Is and Where It Comes From

Most of us probably believe we are not prejudiced. We probably believe ourselves to be ethical and unbiased, too. In the workplace, we probably believe we’re good decision makers, capable of objectively deciding about a job candidate or employee’s performance, and reaching a rational and fair conclusion about any particular business problem or situation. Yet it’s clear from more than 2 decades of research that we all have bias.

Why do you suppose that is? Well, let’s explore this a bit to understand why we are making countless decisions without realizing it.

Eleven million pieces. That’s the amount of information our brains are faced with at any given moment, according to Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the book, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Rather shocking, isn’t it? You might find it even more surprising that the brain can only process about 40 of those bits of information. So what does our brain do? It creates shortcuts and uses past knowledge to make assumptions. This is what researchers call unconscious bias.

Here’s a great quick video from PwC on unconscious bias and what they refer to as blind spots.

OK, so it’s a natural process for our brains to take in information, register and categorize it as good or bad, comfortable or uncomfortable. It’s normal to have blind spots or biases. We all do. Yet as human beings, we have to build awareness of what they are—unconscious or not—because they can negatively and unfairly impact the people around us. We assume we are making sound, rational decisions, and our intent is generally good. Yet our unconscious brain is working against us, and we have to keep it in check. 

Bias and Unconscious Bias: The Impact on Race and Gender

Research on bias conducted by UK-based business psychologists Tinu Cornish and Dr. Pete Jones (2011) showed that nearly 40% of people have unconscious biases against particular genders and ethnicities. This shows that we need to make a conscious effort to mitigate unconscious bias to ensure equal opportunity in our organizations and society.

Here are some additional examples of the dangers of our unconscious bias. Researchers at the Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute, University of Wisconsin, Madison, conducted a study on racial bias and assumptions. Here’s what they found.

  • When shown photographs of men with similar body types, evaluators rated the athletic ability of black men as higher than that of white men.
  • When evaluating the quality of verbal skills as indicated by vocabulary definitions, evaluators rated the subjects lower when they were told they were black, compared to when they were told they were white.
  • Randomly assigning different names to resumes showed that job applicants with “white-sounding names” were more likely to be interviewed for open positions than were equally qualified applicants with “black-sounding names.”

In a now famous study called the Heidi/Howard Roizen case, researchers from Columbia’s Business School asked students to appraise the resume of an entrepreneur called Howard Roizen. He worked at Apple, launched his own software company, and had been a partner at a venture capital firm. He was a proficient networker and had very powerful friends, including Bill Gates. Colleagues described him as a “catalyst” and “captain of industry.” The students thought he would be an excellent person to have within a company because he was someone who got things done and was likeable.

Interestingly enough, the same resume was evaluated by students, only it was in the name of Heidi Roizen. The result? The student appraisal of Heidi differed dramatically from their appraisal of Howard. They judged Heidi to be more selfish and less desirable than Howard, even though she was viewed as equally effective. About Howard the evaluators said, “I’d like to meet him, he seems like a successful guy.” About Heidi they said she seems “out for herself” and “aggressive.”

As human beings, we have the ability to critically think and analyze. In the workplace, it is important for us to understand when we are relying on our impulses driven by unconscious bias, and to challenge them—so that in the end we make more informed and rational decisions, and do not unintentionally exclude anyone.

In the next unit, we learn about bias in the workplace and its impact on employee performance.


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