What is implicit bias?

Implicit bias refers to attitudes or stereotypes that affect our actions, decisions and unconscious understanding towards or against a particular person or group. A person may explicitly endorse certain values and believe them to be true. Yet, they may still hold an unconscious bias that doesn’t align with their declared values. A common example of implicit bias is favouring or being more receptive to familiar-sounding names than those from other cultural groups.


Microaggressions take place when a person indirectly, subtly or unintentionally discriminates. They’re based on differences in race, gender identity or sexual orientation. Implicit bias can occur without a face-to-face interaction. For example, the choice of images or written language can show bias. Microaggressions are more likely to occur through passive remarks and actions.

Implicit bias stems from the various types of stereotypes or fears that lead to prejudice, discrimination and/or negative attitudes. The following is a list of common “isms” and phobias:

  • Ableism (directed at people who may exhibit or seem to show signs of mental or physical disabilities)
  • Ageism (based on age)
  • Colourism (based on a person’s skin tone or complexion)
  • Homophobia (targets those who are attracted to members of their own gender)
  • Racism (based on a person’s race or cultural identity)
  • Religious prejudice (based on a person’s system of beliefs, practices and worship)
  • Sexism (focused on a person’s gender)
  • Sizeism (based on a person’s weight and outwards appearance)
  • Transphobia (heteronormism) (targets transsexual or transgender people)
  • Xenophobia (focuses on people from other countries)

We could unintentionally engage in microaggressions. This can happen even, or maybe especially, when we’re unaware of our own implicit bias. We may feel these are harmless comments or actions. They can still have a significant negative impact on others.

Implicit curiosity is one way to address implicit bias.

There’s lots of research in the social psychology sphere about bias and discrimination. Simply put, we form prejudiced opinions regardless of our intelligence or education – but curiosity may help us make wiser judgments.

Curiosity has long been recognized as a common, innate human characteristic, one that compels us to ask questions (both implicitly and explicitly), seek knowledge, gain understanding and make appropriate decisions (Golman & Loewenstein, 2015; Kidd & Hayden, 2015; Noordewier & Dijk, 2017) as cited in Change through Curiosity in the Insight Approach to Conflict, by Megan Price (2017).

So, ask questions respectfully about each person’s preferences and opinions. Most people are happy to share information with those who genuinely want to know more. Do not assume that any one person can speak for an entire group. For example, do not ask how people “like you” feel or think. Instead focus on their personal perspective.

Examples of microaggressions

Below are examples of what might be perceived as a microaggression and potential solutions:

  1. Asking if a person’s hair is real and/or touching it without permission

    What to do instead: “Your hair looks nice,” or “I like what you did with your hair”. Never touch someone’s hair without permission.

  2. Asking, “Where are you really from?” after someone has told you where they’re from

    What to do instead: Nothing

  3. Assuming you know a person’s language or their racial identity based on their appearance

    What to do instead: Ask, “Do you speak any other languages?” or say nothing

  4. Assuming gender expression, mis-gendering (even if unintentional) or stating, “You don’t look trans.”

    What to do instead: Ask for the person’s preferred pronouns and honour them at all times.

  5. Mispronouncing a person’s name or using a nickname (unless agreed on)

    What to do instead: Ask the person what they like to be called.

  6. Making comments on someone’s perceived mood. For example, “He’s acting bipolar,” or “She must be on her period.”

    What to do instead: Be sympathetic or say nothing.

  7. Assuming or commenting on someone’s sexual preference or family structure

    What to do instead: Use gender-neutral terms like “partner” or “spouse”

Questioning your implicit bias

Everyone carries bias. We each have a responsibility to be aware of when and why this might occur. Gauging your “intersectionality” can predict which groups you may hold unconscious bias towards. Intersections are the social groups that make up your identity. They are often the groups you surround yourself with. This exercise can help reveal areas to improve and explore.

  1. What social groups do I belong to? Consider racial identity, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation or others like socioeconomic status. I am a
    These are your intersections.
  2. In my workplace, do most people belong to the same groups as me?
  3. What are the predominant identities in our workplace?
  4. What do most people who don’t share my social groups have in common? Examples: English-speaking, Canadian or straight.
  5. Are people from different social groups part of my personal social circle? If not, why not?
  6. Who’s not a part of any of my social groups at work? What may be the reason? Example: Mothers because the hours are not flexible
  7. Are there certain groups I have limited or no interactions with? List as many of these groups as you can. Examples: Muslim women, trans people and people under 25.
  8. In what ways could this workplace be more inclusive of people from other social groups? Example: Review HR policy and internal evaluation for diversity and inclusion.
  9. Complete the following phrases. In each case you’re describing the first image that comes to your mind. Evaluate your responses to try and establish some of your implicit biases.
    1. When I picture a financial sector CEO, I first imagine a(n)…(age) (race) (gender) (sexual orientation).
    2. You’re invited to someone’s family dinner. What was the structure of the family you imagined?
    3. Someone’s arrested for a violent crime. What do they look like?
    4. Your friend casually says a slur in conversation. What did they say?
    5. The hero in the story is probably a…(race) (gender) (sexual orientation).

Addressing bias and microaggressions

If you witness bias or a microaggression in the workplace:

Identify: State to those involved what you saw or heard.

Reframe the narrative: Share why you think the exchange may be hurtful to others. This is an opportunity for respectful dialogue! Give people the benefit of the doubt. They may not be aware of their own bias.

Get educated: The better everyone understands the issues, the more they can avoid bias. Ask questions. Seek information. Pursue professional development opportunities that focus on inclusion.


*Take the “I Act On Pledge” of the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion

*Check out Project Implicit

Additional resources

Mary Ann Baynton Director of Collaboration and Strategy, Workplace Strategies for Mental Health thanks Cathy Bawden, Monique Bergeron, Jaison Coley, Mardi Daley, Roxanne Derhodge, Jackie Faulkner, Karen Hicks, Sheldon Ji, Tova Larsen, Tania Lor, Christine Newman, Nyk Morrigan, Bonnie Pedota, Robyn Priest, Nancy Russell, Kate Welsh, Rogue Witterick and Michelle Yan for their contributions.

The author of this content, Mardi Daley, B.A is a Young Adult Peer Specialist, advocate and recent founder of the Lived Experience Lab. Mardi specializes in youth engagement and best practices for the ethical engagement of people with lived experience in the workplace.