I cannot tolerate intolerant people.
There, now you know whom I’m biased against.
Actually, I’m probably biased against other people as well; I’m just not aware of it. That’s something called implicit, or unconscious, bias and by the time you read this article, all the employees at the 8,000-plus Starbucks in America will have learned something about it.
You’re probably aware that Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson decided to require all employees in the U.S. to receive training about implicit bias after a Philadelphia store manager called the police because two black men sat in her store for two minutes without making a purchase. The men were arrested for trespassing, public outrage ensued and training was scheduled for May 29 with former Attorney General Eric Holder and Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, named as the trainers.
I’m writing this article on May 16, so the training is still in the future on this side of the time spectrum. You’re reading this article after May 29, so you know how it went. Regardless of whether the training was successful or not, I feel confident in stating that all employers and those who make decisions about other people’s employment should know about implicit bias.
“Implicit bias is our brains’ automatic processing of negative stereotypes that have become embedded in our brains over time about particular groups of people, oftentimes without our conscious awareness,” said Alexis McGill Johnson in the article “A Lesson in How to Overcome Implicit Bias.”
Johnson is the executive director of the Perception Institute, a group of social psychologists and strategists who study how our brains respond to physical differences such as race and sex.
If we’re not aware of these biases, how do we know they exist? Because of lots of studies conducted by social psychologists that revealed things like:
• Faculty members responding to emails more and faster when a stereotypically white name was used in the email (“What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway into Organizations”).
• Doctors who were less likely to recommend a helpful procedure to black patients even when their medical files were identical to white patients (“The Effect of Race and Sex on Physicians’ Recommendations for Cardiac Catheterization”).
• Black and female car buyers being quoted higher prices than white males by car salespersons (“Race and Gender Discrimination in Bargaining for a New Car”).
• Employers inviting applicants to interviews more frequently when their resumes were sent from a person with a stereotypically white name like Greg rather than from a person with a stereotypically black name like Jamal (“Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination”).
I could go on and on, but you get the point.
Even though it looks like the people involved in these studies were consciously biased, Sendhil Mullainathan, co-author of the last study mentioned above, said that many of the human resources managers involved in his study were stunned by its results.
“They prized creating diversity in their companies, yet here was evidence that they were doing anything but,” Mullainathan said in his article “Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions.”
How is it possible to have unconscious biases?
The authors of the article “How to Think about ‘Implicit Bias’” explained it this way: “Our brain is constantly bombarded with data, so it notices patterns and makes generalizations trying to put order to the data. However, sometimes it overgeneralizes without us knowing about it, which could lead us to discriminate even when we think we’re treating people equally.”
In other words, we tend to make a lot of snap judgments about people and things because of all the data rapidly coming at us.
“Our snap judgments rely on all the associations we have — from fictional television shows to news reports. They use stereotypes, both the accurate and the inaccurate, both those we would want to use and ones we find repulsive,” said Mullainathan.
For example, quickly assuming that someone has a gun in their hand because of the color of their skin when they’re actually holding a cell phone.
Are implicit biases that bad? They are when your emails aren’t answered, you’re not prescribed a medical treatment, you have to pay more for a car or you aren’t invited to an interview because of them.
What can we do about implicit biases?
Patricia Devine and her colleagues at the Prejudice and Intergroup Relations Lab at the University of Wisconsin at Madison developed implicit bias training years ago that is considered to be effective in addressing the issue. The training presents bias as a bad habit that can be broken by becoming aware of it, being motivated to do something about it and creating strategies to replace it like:
• Observing your own stereotypes and replacing them.
• Looking for situational reasons for a person’s behavior, rather than stereotypes about that person’s group.
• Seeking out people who belong to groups unlike your own.
Additionally, creating policies for how to handle various situations — such as when people are sitting in your store without making a purchase — can prevent individual snap judgments from causing chaos to the entire organization.
Creating a diverse workforce makes the biggest impact.
“We know that what works best is for workers to be put side by side with people from other groups and have them work together collaboratively as equals,” said Harvard sociology professor Frank Dobbin.
Getting to know people as individuals helps to reduce biases.
The notion of implicit bias, testing to determine its existence and training to correct it certainly has its detractors.
I’m not one of them.
Although I’m not a psychologist, I know that our brains are incredibly complex and all sorts of things happen at the unconscious level that drive our behavior, sometimes to our and other people’s detriment. Hopefully, employers and those who make decisions about other people’s employment know that, too, and take steps to let their conscience be their guide.
Robin Paggi is training and development specialist with Worklogic HR.