In an effort to create more diversity-friendly workplaces,
tech giants like Google and Facebook have been training employees to recognize
their unconscious biases. As the term implies, these biases are below the
surface, unintended, and often undesired. They’re implicit rather than
Explicit biases are evident in what people say and do, and
chances are those who have such prejudices are aware of them. The manager who
talks negatively about “the millennials” knows she holds the younger generation
in low regard. The person who uses racist slurs doesn’t try to hide his dislike
of other races. The executive who believes women shouldn’t be in leadership
roles avoids recommending a female subordinate for promotion. These biases are
all on the surface. Consequently, it’s relatively easy to see the connection
between these individuals’ prejudices and their behavior in the workplace.
Not so with implicit or unconscious biases. Without
realizing it, we may prefer to associate with younger people rather than older
people, or enjoy the company of women more than men, or react more amicably to
people of our own race. More concerning: we may unconsciously associate one
group with positive stereotypes and another group with negative ones. Recent
studies in psychology suggest that we all have implicit biases and that these
biases influence our decisions.
In the workplace, these implicit biases lead to
micro-aggressions—small slights or offenses that may go mostly unnoticed, but
can add up to systematic discrimination or even a hostile work environment.
Research shows, for example, that resumes with white-sounding names are more
likely to get callbacks than resumes with black-sounding names. And it’s not
because companies have official policies or practices against hiring
minorities; it’s the result of unconscious bias.
Unfortunately for those affected, unconscious bias is
difficult to prove. It’s one thing to demonstrate that resumes with
white-sounding names get more callbacks; it’s quite another to prove that a particular
hiring manager gave special treatment to white applicants in a specific
instance. And even if we could demonstrate implicit biases in the workplace,
penalizing people may not be the best way to address the behavior. After all,
they’re not deliberately chosen or the consequence of willful neglect.
So what’s the solution? The jury is still out on that.
Some companies are trying to make their employees more aware
of their unconscious biases by having them take implicit association tests. As
of now, however, we don’t yet know how effective these “raise awareness” efforts
will prove to be—if they have any positive effect at all.
Alternatively, some companies are using hiring applications
that hide identifying information so that race, gender, and other protected
classes can’t be taken into account early in the interview process. While these
indirect efforts won’t remove people’s unconscious biases, they may help
mitigate their effects on employment decisions, thereby reducing discrimination
in the workplace.
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