Addressing Unconscious Bias

Posted by Andrew Edgar on Tue, Sep 23, 2014 @ 10:09 AM

Addressing Unconcious Bias

Workplace anti-discrimination policies aren’t a new practice; for more than four decades, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin in the U.S.

However, the biases and preferences Title VII and other policies were designed to address aren’t, unfortunately, new, either.

Some are fairly obvious: For example, recent research from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, found that individuals who showed “greater levels of implicit prejudice toward, or stereotypes of, black or gay people were more unfriendly toward them.”

Other prejudices, however, including common physical factors, can be a bit more subtle. Less than 4 percent of men in the U.S. are 6’2” or taller, comprising a relatively small section of the population, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote the 2007 book “Blink” about decision making. Yet nearly a third—30 percent—of corporate CEOs Gladwell surveyed were 6’2” or taller.

HR professionals, company leadership and other professionals in charge of the hiring process aren’t consciously searching the workforce for candidates who’d also work well on a basketball team. However, some may be subtly viewing height as an indicator of success.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology several years ago found an inch of height can be worth an additional $789 per year in salary. The study indicated that, even after controlling for age, gender and weight, on average, workers who are 6 feet tall earn almost $166,000 more during their career than someone who is 5’5”.

One of the researchers speculated additional height may result in a higher sense of self-esteem—prompting others to view tall people as more leader-like and authoritative.

Not all biases are innately physical. A 2014 study led by Columbia Business School Assistant Professor of Management Ernesto Reuben found male and female participants who were asked to hire candidates for a math-based task were twice as likely to hire the male candidate—even when qualifications appeared equal—because, according to Fast Company, men are often perceived as having better math skills than women.

Subtle bias clearly remains an ongoing issue in the workplace. How can companies correct it? Recent research has suggested a few possible solutions:

• Inform and make changes from the top down: In a March 2014 Workforce magazine article, Caryl Rivers—professor of journalism at Boston University and co-author of “The New Soft War on Women,” a book examining why women’s progress in the workforce has stalled—suggested managers take a larger role in combating subtle gender bias-based discrimination. Rivers recommended managers complete training courses to help them recognize bias and enact widespread corporate culture changes to prevent it.

• Counteract stereotypes with positive images and slogans: Another 2014 study, produced by academics from a variety of universities, found that realigning perceptions may help disprove stereotypes. Researchers found that showing subjects images, words or phrases that contrasted common stereotypes was more effective than injustice-related education, according to NPR. Companies could try to echo the effect in subtle ways, such as making a more concerted effort to include diverse subjects in photos used in internal company handbooks and other materials.

• Identify your own perceptions: If you’re curious about your own potential level of subtle bias, you—and other leaders at your organization—can take the Implicit Association Test (IAT), created by group of researchers from Harvard University, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington. In less than 10 minutes, the free online test can help gauge if you closely associate career- and family-related terms with a specific gender.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, please check out our post about diversity and inclusion.

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Topics: Diversity

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