Watch Out for the Minefield of Hidden Bias


By Pamela Babcock March 3, 2008

Mounting evidence says most people are more prejudiced than they think. The Implicity Association Test (IAT), a web-based series of exercises developed by a Harvard University research team, discovered a significant degree of implicit bias among those tested—despite what researchers say were honest assertions by test takers that they harbored no prejudices. The IAT was developed as part of a project designed to detect bias based on several factors, including race, gender, sexual orientation and national origin.

Researchers found that the highest levels of bias—70 percent or more—were directed at blacks, the elderly, the disabled, the overweight and other stigmatized groups. Furthermore, minorities internalized the same biases as majority groups. Researcher Tony Greenwald, a University of Washington psychology professor, was one of the first to take the test—and was immediately struck by the results. "We were initially surprised to find these biases in ourselves," says Greenwald. "After finding them in ourselves, we were not so surprised to find them in others."

As you know, bias—hidden or overt—can affect decisions as to who is hired and how you evaluate, promote and pay employees. Says Milton Perkins, SPHR, North Central regional director for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and staff leader of SHRM's Workplace Diversity Special Expertise Panel, hidden bias "will affect turnover and, at the end of the day, people who are hurting inside will inevitably hurt someone else; they will hurt your business, impact your customers and drain your productivity."

The good news? Individuals with an implicit bias don't always act in biased ways, says Greenwald. "We believe that people aware of their implicit biases can, if they wish, choose to suppress their expression by paying attention to their behavior in situations that allow possible discrimination," he says. "However, most people remain unaware of their implicit biases."

The key, then, is to start by recognizing these skewed perceptions. Greenwald says getting people to take one or more of the IAT exercises is "a first step" in building individual awareness of unconscious prejudices. Paul Steven Miller, a law professor at the University of Washington and former commissioner with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, agrees the test may be helpful in challenging people in a nonjudgmental way to think about biases they may harbor. "In fact, when someone is accused of discrimination, often people take great offense because it's an ugly accusation," Miller says. "And yet those same people, when you dive in and peel back the layers, may have biases ingrained that are affecting the decisions they make, the assignments they give and the promotion or hiring they do."

The test certainly had a surprising effect on staff members of the Montgomery, Ala.—based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting civil rights and promoting tolerance, which was so interested in the IAT research that from 2001 to 2003 it provided funding to develop several tests. As a result, one might expect that center staff members would be more bias-free than other groups—yet the test revealed that they, too, had hidden biases.

"Bigotry is a persistent social problem in this country, and we can't escape being socialized in this context," says Jennifer Smith-Holladay, the center's senior adviser for strategic affairs. Smith-Holladay says her own results uncovered a preference for white people—a group to which she belongs—and a preference for "straight" people, a group to which she doesn't belong. "I discovered that I not only have some in-group favoritism lurking in my subconscious, but also possess some internalized oppression in terms of my sexuality," she adds. Lesson learned? "In the case of my own subconscious in-group favoritism for white people, for example, my charge is to be color-conscious, not color-blind, and to always explicitly consider how race may affect behaviors and decisions."

Quinetta M. Roberson, associate professor of human resource studies at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, encourages managers to look at language used in various contexts—staffing, performance reviews and the identification of high-potential employees and succession planning or leadership candidates. The most obvious examples of loaded language involve using words to describe expectations about how people will behave, rather than their actual behavior, says Roberson, or using adjectives in a performance review to describe the employee, rather than simply stating what the employee's performance was, or whether that level of performance was acceptable. "Joe Smith is lazy" is a much different assessment than "Joe Smith did not complete a single task on time, thereby failing to meet his goals."

A more subtle case might relate to the verbs managers choose to describe employee performance. For example, writing that Joe Smith "exhibited good teamwork skills" suggests that although Joe has demonstrated these skills in the past, he may not necessarily be expected to do so in the future. Writing that Joe "is a great team player" is a broader statement about Joe, not just his demonstrated behavior, and implies that he may be expected to be a team player in the future. Even if you don't take the IAT, here are some ways to combat bias:

  • Use multiple interviewers with diverse backgrounds and different perspectives. This helps ensure that more valid and legally defensible hiring decisions are made—and that the impact of any biases held by individuals or groups is minimized.
  • Use structured, rather than unstructured, interviews, in which all candidates are asked the same questions regardless of demographic characteristics or appearance. Unstructured interviews accurately predict on-the-job performance only 20 percent of the time, while structured interviews do somewhat better, at 50 percent.
  • Set up a blind applicant-review system. A 2004 study of job candidates with white— and black—sounding names by the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business found uniform discrimination across occupations and industries. Federal contractors and employers claiming to be equal opportunity employers discriminated as much as other employers. As a way to counter this bias, employment lawyers recommend masking the names and addresses of applicants before circulating resumes.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area. She has worked as a reporter for The Washington Post and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. , as well as in corporate communications.

Terms of Use: © 2006 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

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