Are decisions made for the reasons you think?

by Dinita L. James

Employment laws prohibit intentional discrimination based on race, sex, or other protected characteristics as well as practices that have a discriminatory impact if they’re not supported by business necessity. Implicit or unconscious bias isn’t technically unlawful in the workplace if it doesn’t cause an unjustified adverse impact.  Bias

Yet a presidential candidate in the most-watched debate ever recently responded to a question about whether she “believed that police are implicitly biased against black people” by stating, “Implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police.” The FBI director also recently acknowledged overwhelming research demonstrating the presence of widespread unconscious biases and the way in which those biases may manifest in policing.

I’m not sure which particular research the FBI director was talking about, but a couple of very different scientific studies that have been in the news brought home to me how important it is for executives and HR leaders to understand implicit bias and take steps to minimize its impact on your business.

Gun sting targets

A Columbia Law School professor performed an analysis of the individuals targeted by agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for a controversial type of drug sting in the Chicago area between 2006 and 2014. The agents lured suspects with the promise of a huge take for robbing a drug stash house that didn’t exist. If the target took the bait, the sting was a prosecution for conspiring to resell the nonexistent drugs and the long prison sentences that carries.

Of the 94 people arrested in the sting since 2006, 91 percent are black or Hispanic. The professor calculates that there is only a 0.1 percent chance that the agents could have selected so many minorities by chance from among the potential target group of people with criminal records of robberies. Yet I simply cannot believe that it was conscious, intentional racial prejudice that inspired federal officers sworn to serve and protect to target minorities for the sting. Clearly, however, there was some bias at work.

Preschool teachers

Even more eye-opening is a recent study from Yale involving preschool teachers. In one experiment, teachers were told they were being measured on how quickly they could detect “challenging” behaviors by preschoolers in a video. In truth, the four children—a black boy and a white boy, and a white girl and a black girl—were actors, and no misbehavior was depicted.

During the experiment, the researchers tracked where the teachers’ eyes went. The teachers, both black and white, gazed longer at the black children, especially boys, when looking for “challenging” behaviors.

Think beyond the first blink

The best definition of implicit bias I have found comes from Malcolm Gladwell, in a passage from his 2005 bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking in which he writes: “All of us have implicit biases to some degree. This does not necessarily mean we will act in an inappropriate or discriminatory manner, only that our first ‘blink’ sends us certain information. Acknowledging and understanding this implicit response and its value and role is critical to informed decision-making and is particularly critical to those whose decisions must embody fairness and justice.”

We want all of our employment decisions to embody fairness, and that means we need to be aware of implicit and unconscious biases. We have them. Line managers and supervisors have them. All of our employees have them and apply them when they interact with customers, vendors, and other individuals.

That doesn’t mean our treatment of others will be unfair. But we can guard against any unfair effects of implicit bias if we pause after the first blink to consider whether something from within is keeping us from being totally objective in our judgments. Training ourselves and anyone who manages others on our behalf to pause and engage in critical self-examination after that first blink is an important step toward making the fair employment decisions to which we all aspire.

Dinita L. James, a partner in the Arizona law firm Gonzalez Law, LLC. She may be contacted at dinita.james@gnzlaw.com.

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