What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias refers to bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically, triggered by our brain to result in making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations. Unconscious bias is influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

These common assumptions are examples of unconscious bias:

  • A person is of a certain race based on his/her name, voice and/or accent.
  • People of certain ethnic groups have specific interests.
  • Women are always primary caregivers.
  • A woman does not want a specific job because she has children or would not want to move.
  • A husband’s job was the reason for a family’s relocation.
  • Someone is gay based on a certain haircut or way of dressing.
  • An overweight person is unmotivated.
  • An older adult is forgetful and frail.

For more information, you can download an Unconscious Bias Tip Sheet.

How can I keep unconscious bias in check during the interview process?

  1. Begin by recognizing that you – and everyone else – have unconscious bias. Examine whether there are differences in the types of questions you ask different types of individuals. Take the Harvard Implicit Association Tests to learn more about your conscious and unconscious preferences.
  2. Where you find unconscious bias, make the effort to learn more about members of that group. Unconscious bias tends to thrive on a lack of information.
  3. Try using memory joggers – written notes or images – to remind yourself of the need to remain vigilant and objective.
  4. Keep in mind that unconscious bias is more likely to play a role in your decision making when you are under pressure or when there is a great deal of uncertainty. If you are under pressure, try taking a break or using another mechanism to reduce your stress.
  5. When taking or recommending personnel actions, look at the basis for your decisions and ask yourself if there is objective data to support your action or if unconscious bias is at work. Did that person you just interviewed remind you of a childhood friend? Did that association lead you to be slightly more supportive in the interview than you would have been otherwise?
  6. Remember: “Time and again, the research shows that interviews are poor predictors of job performance because we tend to hire people we think are similar to us rather than those who are objectively going to do a good job.” – Ori Brafman in “Overcoming the ‘Sway’ in Professional Life.” The New York Times. July 15, 2008.

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