Leadership Firm Finds Racism—in Typos

By Aliah D. Wright Apr 29, 2014

Typos have long been the pet peeve of recruiters, HR professionals, proofreaders and editors. But, accordi​ng to a new study from leadership consultancy Nextions, people are less likely to see typos in a document when they think the author is white.

HR professionals and experts in leadership say executives need to make sure managers are aware of these kinds of unconscious biases when hiring or performing evaluations.

“Does the color of one’s skin serve as an indicator of someone’s intellect? No, it doesn’t,” said Kyle Jones, HR manager for MegaGate Broadband Inc. in Mississippi, social media director for the South Mississippi chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and co-social media director for the Mississippi State Council of SHRM. “What happens when the person reviewing the application does believe it plays a factor? Does the most qualified candidate get the job? I would like to think the answer is yes, but I know this is not always true,” he said.

Nextions’ study is Written in Black & White: Exploring Confirmation Bias in Racialized Perceptions of Writing Skills. Nextions consultants collaborated with partners from five law firms to draft a fictitious research memo on trade secrets in Internet startups, as written by a third-year litigation associate. They named the hypothetical associate Thomas Meyer, a graduate of New York University Law School.

Sixty partners from 22 different law firms were asked to edit the memo. Half of the partners were told the author was black. The others were told he was white. Of the partners editing the memo, 23 were women, 37 were men, 21 were racial/ethnic minorities and 39 were white, according to the study. Each reviewer also received the research materials used to prepare the document. Nextions said it deliberately placed 22 different errors in the memo. The partners were asked to edit for technical, factual and substantive errors, and then grade the document on a scale of 1 to 5.

Reviewers gave the black Meyer an average score of 3.2; the white Meyer got a 4.1.

In the comments section, the study’s authors note, the white Meyer collected the following notations:

  • “Generally good writer but needs to work on … ”
  • “Has potential.”
  • “Good analytical skills.”

Comments about the memo written by the black Meyer included:

  • “Needs lots of work.”
  • “Can’t believe he went to NYU.”
  • “Average at best.”

The study’s authors wrote, “We undertook this study with the hypothesis that unconscious confirmation bias in a supervising lawyer’s assessment of legal writing would result in a more negative rating if that writing was submitted by an African American lawyer in comparison to the same submission by a Caucasian lawyer.

“We see more errors when we expect to see errors, and we see fewer errors when we do not expect to see errors.”

“Unconscious biases can be in direct contradiction with your conscious beliefs,” said Eric Peterson, a senior consultant at Maryland-based diversity consultancy Cook Ross Inc., which specializes in applying research on the brain to unconscious bias and diversity efforts in organizations.

Peterson said in an interview with SHRM Online, “Most people do not believe they are racists or biased against people of color.” However, “both white people and African-Americans have all ingested the stereotype that Caucasians are more literate,” which explains why evaluators of all backgrounds gave the white Meyer a better rating.

Andrew Carton, an assistant professor of management at Penn State University’s Smeal College of Business, told SHRM Online the results of a separate study on bias and evaluation and hiring of minority leaders showed that “even after black leaders have had success, people tend to focus on attributes that are not central to leadership competency.”

Nextions stated it hoped leaders at law firms would “disseminate the study with senior lawyers at their organizations and discuss their reactions and perspectives,” then begin training staff on “unconscious bias for everyone who is in an evaluative position.”

“The more you know about your own biases, then you can counteract [them],” Peterson concurred.

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


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