Chamber Blog

Four Reasons Companies Can’t Afford to Ignore Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Four Reasons Companies Can't Afford to Ignore Unconscious Bias in the Workplace 1

We all have unconscious biases that we bring with us into our places of work. Triggered by our brains making quick judgments of people and situations, these subconscious attitudes can span race, gender, age, wealth, appearance, and much more. They are influenced by our background and personal experiences and can impact everything from the clothes you wear to the employee you promote. In an everyday work setting, it can determine who is most involved in a meeting, who speaks the loudest, who is heard the most, and who sits in the back.

Four Reasons Companies Can't Afford to Ignore Unconscious Bias in the Workplace 2
Sonya Hughes, owner of Inclusive Outcomes LLC

Consider stereotypes you may have heard before, like “Men are better leaders,” “Latinos are lazy,” “All women are on the mommy track,” or “Asians are smart but quiet.” While many of us wouldn’t say these things out loud or actively think them in our brains, our unconscious minds may be causing us to make decisions based on these stereotypes created by the media and cultural misunderstandings.

“Every human is biased. It’s a biological function of the brain. It helps us quickly assess people and situations to make snap judgments, which was necessary for humans to survive once upon a time” said Sonya Hughes, owner of Inclusive Outcomes LLC and former Vice President of Inclusion for the Grand Rapids Chamber. “While everyone has this tendency, it’s how we respond to it that matters. With knowledge and awareness of our biases, we can start to recognize and interrupt those behaviors – and that bias will change over time.”

But why should we aim to interrupt our biases if having them is an evolutional function of the brain? Does it matter in the long run if some employees feel excluded from time-to-time?

Here are four reasons companies can’t afford to ignore unconscious bias in the workplace:

1. Research has shown us that diversity within organizations promotes innovation and creativity. McKinsey’s Delivery Through Diversity report even indicates with the most diverse executive teams are 33% more profitable.

If organizations do not promote a culture that is genuinely inclusive to diverse employees, they surely won’t be around for long. Say goodbye to that 34% higher return to shareholders that is correlated with companies that have more women in executive positions, according to a Catalyst study.

2. Unconscious bias can affect a company’s reputation.

“An employer’s poor reputation as an inclusive place to work will eventually be discovered by prospects, whether through word of mouth, websites like Glassdoor, or social media. As a result, the negative employer brand will drive away prospective talent.” – Excerpt from a blog by Allegis Group, an international talent management firm headquartered in Hanover, Maryland. As of 2016, they had US$11.2 billion in revenue.

3. Bias at work can affect an organization’s diversity and inclusion initiatives in just about every way, but it shows up most often in recruiting, screening, performance reviews, coaching and development, and promotions.

“If an interviewer is meeting someone and thinks, ‘I really like this person and I think they’d fit in here’ by just going with their gut, it’s because they connect to them somehow,” Hughes explained. “They’re seeing their reflection in that person and like them more than another candidate because there’s something familiar or similar there. If I were to primarily hire people that are all like me in some way, we would not be as effective of a team or organization. It limits our ability.”

4. Two million professionals and managers voluntarily leave their jobs solely due to unfairness, according to the Corporate Leavers Survey.

This costs US employers $64 billion in turnover annually.


Unconscious bias touches many aspects of diversity in the workforce. Left unchecked, it can damage employer reputations, reduce talent acquisition effectiveness, and poison company culture.

So how can we control our biases and positively impact diversity and inclusion at our organizations, creating an equitable workplace? The best tool in our toolbox is ourselves. We have the power to step back from a situation and reflect. The more aware we are our biases and how important it is to look outside of your in-group, the more we can be conscious of our behaviors and become confident that we are not ruled by these biases.

Diversity and inclusion programs can also reduce the effects of unconscious bias. Combating unconscious bias requires commitment and action, but the results can yield a significant talent advantage for any company that commits to the vision.


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