Unconscious Bias at Work: How It’s Affecting Your Workplace

Unconscious bias at work can have real consequences on employee experience. Over time, it hinders the organization’s ability to execute its business. Yet, talking about issues of race, diversity and prejudice in the workplace can be uncomfortable. From a risk vs. reward perspective, business people typically avoid these topics. Often we think discussing bias could do more harm than good. However, the outpouring of grief, anger and action after recent, high-profile tragedies are pushing us to be more open about our biases.

The cost of workplace bias is projected at $64B annually.

This estimated cost is based on the cost of losing and replacing more than 2 million American workers due to unfairness and discrimination.1 This amount doesn’t take into account legal costs – when companies have to defend themselves or incur penalties when an employees’ biases lead to unlawful behavior.

How unconscious bias at work shows up in the employee experience.

Unconscious bias (or implicit bias) refers to prejudice that we are unaware of. They happen outside of our control. It is automatic and triggered by our brain making quick decisions. Therefore, it may unexpectedly show up in small ways. One way is assuming an older employee doesn’t want to use the latest technology. In addition, you may presume a younger-looking professional is not the leader of a team.

However, it shows up in big ways, as well. Unconscious bias at work affects how we evaluate talent, performance, assignments and promotions. Here are just a few examples:

  • 48% of African American women and 47% of Latina women report being mistaken for administrative or custodial staff.2
  • Less than 15% of U.S. men are over 6 feet tall. Yet, 60% of corporate CEOs are at least this height.3
  • The taller a man is the more likely he will earn more than a shorter man.4
  • Resumes with African American, Asian and Hispanic names are less likely to get call backs for interviews.5

The personal effects of unconscious bias at work can be detrimental.

Employees who experience prejudice actively disengage and reduce contributions6. A study evaluated 3,570 respondents, consisting of men, women, African Americas, Caucasians, Asians and Hispanics. They were between the ages of 21 and 65. Also, they were all employed full-time in white-collar occupations with at least a bachelor’s degree.

Of those who reported experiencing workplace bias, here is what they revealed:

  • 33% feel alienated.
  • 34% withhold ideas and solutions.
  • Lastly, 80% would not refer people to their employer.

Feelings of isolation, alienation and withholding take a toll on the person. Therefore, stress hormones build in our systems resulting in:

  • Low or no emotional engagement.
  • Increased stress related illness.
  • Increased accidents and absenteeism in the workplace.
  • Above average employee turnover.
  • Lower client satisfaction and higher customer “turn.”

Consider this: It can take the brain 3-4 hours to rid of the stress hormones. Each time an employee feels discriminated against or experiences unconscious bias, these emotions resurface. As a result, employees do not have the capacity to do their best work. In addition, they may not have the ability to work at all. This level of disengagement is rising for U.S. companies. Consequently, it generates $450-550 billion in losses each year.1

Conversations about diversity – even prejudice – are necessary.

No matter the organization, you are likely dealing with bias among your talent in one form or another. Consider that “nice” people and “good” people can still engage in hurtful behavior or ineffective practices. We are all born without prejudice. Over time, we learn misinformation and stereotypes from others, even if we do not realize it.

On the bright side, individuals and organizations can and do grow. Changing workplace attitudes and prejudices is possible. It begins with awareness and honest dialog about how they present in our lives and in our offices.

Is unconscious bias at work stalling your women leaders?

Download our Analyze Gender Balance Workbook to review your overall workforce, hiring practices and development needs.


1 New Data Reveals the Hard Costs of Bias and How to Disrupt It, Forbes
2 Double Jeopardy: Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science, Joan C. Williams, Katherine W. Phillips, Erika V Hall
3 Blink, Malcolm Gladwell
4 The Financial Perks of Being Tall, The Atlantic
5 Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination, Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan
6 Disrupt Bias, Drive Value: A New Path Toward Diverse, Engaged, and Fulfilled Talent, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Ripa Rashid, and Laura Sherbin