Stealth Cameras Confront Hidden Biases

By Dana Wilkie Oct 29, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO—Snap judgments based on how people look or sound—what they wear, their skin color, their accents—may be an understandable survival mechanism that humans developed eons ago, but they have no room in the modern workplace, an Emmy Award-winning journalist told those attending the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual Diversity & Inclusion Conference here.

“We all make assumptions, looking at somebody right away,” said John Quiñones, host of the ABC program “What Would You Do?” during his keynote speech on Oct. 28, 2013, the opening day of the conference. “The experts would say we all do it. African-Americans do it. Mexican-Americans do it. Somebody comes up to you and you judge.”

In his hit show, Quiñones uses hidden cameras and unsuspecting onlookers to capture people’s reactions when they’re faced with troubling issues—from racism to spousal abuse to bullying among schoolchildren.

In a clip from an episode that Quiñones played for the conference audience, an actor posing as a security guard questions the legal status of two Hispanic-looking men at a restaurant in Arizona, a state where laws aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration have been criticized for encouraging racial profiling. One of the men is Quiñones, wearing sunglasses and a hat.

In the clip several restaurant customers confront the security guard and demand he stop his questioning. This, even though polls show that a majority of Arizonans favor the anti-illegal-immigration laws.

Quiñones played the snippet, he said, to demonstrate that when onlookers recognize that bias can affect people personally—their jobs or their families, for instance—they are often empathetic toward those they might otherwise treat insensitively.

While the TV journalist acknowledged that it’s normal to make quick judgments about strangers—“that’s because it’s embedded in our DNA from caveman days; it helped us to survive, to sense danger”—he stressed that it’s an instinct HR managers need to address.

“What the experts say we have to do today is stop ourselves when we’re making those assumptions and say, ‘Wait a minute, why am I thinking that way?’ ” said Quiñones, who is also co-anchor of ABC’s news magazine “Primetime.” “If you see that person as a loving, caring human being just like yourself … you won’t be stereotyping as much.”

Nearly 500 people are attending the Oct. 28-30 conference, featuring HR professionals, attorneys and experts speaking about how to better include women, people of color, the disabled and others in the workforce.

Quiñones, who was raised in a southern Texas barrio and spoke little English in the first grade, recalled how teachers were skeptical of his dreams to attend college and become a journalist.

“The message I kept hearing … was that I’d never make it,” said Quiñones, who went on to earn a master’s in journalism from Columbia University and to win numerous Emmy Awards for exposing the illegal treatment of migrant workers, among other stories. School counselors would suggest he take “wood shop or metal shop or auto mechanics.” 

Asked by one audience member if he’d consider bringing his hidden cameras into workplaces, Quiñones said that while his show’s popularity may eventually open those doors, “corporations and companies worry a lot.”

“Can you imagine being the PR guy for Ford Motor Company [and] we’re going to go in and we’re going to videotape?” he asked. “But Home Depot wants to work with us right now. Dairy Queen has said yes to a couple scenarios. They have to agree what kinds of scenarios, but it’s a big step that they’re willing to let us do that.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect