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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