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Implicit bias in the workplace studies: The HR implications



We like to think we are all fair and objective. However, implicit bias is apparent in everyone, regardless of if you accept it or not. An Implicit Association Test by Project Implicit at Harvard Universityreminds us that while people don’t often speak their minds, we might actually not even know our minds. Are we purposely hiding something from others, or are we implicitly hiding something from ourselves? When it comes to strategic recruitment, implicit bias plays a big role. There have been countless implicit bias studies done in the field of recruitment and human resource development. Let’s take a look at a few standouts.

Implicit bias in the workplace studies

  • In a now famous labour market study by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan titled “Are Emily and John more employable than Lakisha and Jamal?”, experimenters responded to job postings with fictitious resumes. To manipulate the perception of race, either very African American sounding names or very White sounding names were chosen. The results showed considerable discrimination against African American names and White names received 50 percent more callbacks. Moreover, higher quality White resumes received 30 percent more callbacks while higher quality African American resumes received a smaller increase. Aside from race, the fictitious applicants that lived in better neighborhoods received more callbacks. Experimenters noted that employers who cite themselves as an “Equal Opportunity Employer” discriminate just as much as other employers.
  • The Implicit Association Test by Project Implicit showcases perhaps the most astounding results. Over 70 percent of bias were directed at African Americans, the elderly, disabled, overweight and other stigmatized groups. Bias continued to occur within minority groups just as significantly as in majority groups. The first researchers to take the test were initially shocked by the results. However, once the subjects realized their own biases, it was easy to see others’ bias as well. The first step, they say, is recognition. Once you accept that these biases are apparent, they can more easily be overcome.
  • In a study by MIT titled “Gender, Race, and Meritocracy in Organizational Careers”, researchers studied the effect of merit-based reward system in the workplace. Results showed that women and minorities continue to receive less compensation than white men with equal scores on performance evaluations. The author developed and tested a set of propositions isolating performance-reward bias, and discovered that gender, race and nationality differences continue to affect salary growth.
implicit bias


The HR implications Now that it is evident that such bias exists in the workplace, across all industries and geographic locations, what are the implications for the field of HR? In other words, what consequences can arise from biased recruitment?

Productivity: Hidden bias can leave employers reluctant to shift workflow, rotate jobs and re-structure an organizational setting simply because of their implicit bias. Moreover, recruiting without acknowledging an implicit bias is a dangerous road to go down. Discriminative recruitment actions can reflect negatively on the organization as a whole, greatly affecting culture and values. Plus, an employer might simply be hiring the wrong person for the job as a result of their own bias.

Compensation: Quinetta Roberson, associate professor of human resources at Cornell University states that implicit bias may represent a subtle strategy for “establishing intergroup differences or facilitating micro-inequities” that result in less access to opportunity and thus, a different level of compensation. Moreover, it affects employees’ teamwork abilities.

Performance appraisals: Appraisals are extremely subject to bias, despite the measures taken to avoid it. The halo effect, in which an individuals performance is reviewed based on perceived positive quality, is common. For example, Joe never misses a day of work so he is awarded a positive performance review, despite the fact that his productivity is significantly lower than Jane, who misses a day of work once in awhile. Moreover, bias is evident through recency effect, in which appraisers are influenced by the most recent behaviour of the subject rather than considering the entire appraisal period.

How you can avoid implicit bias

  1. Acceptance. Recognizing that bias exists is the first and most important step in ensuring that implicit bias does not rule your decision making.
  2. Anonymity. Assure staff that bias is common, and offer the opportunity for the entire staff to complete an online IAT test so they can learn more about internal bias. Challenging people in a non-threatening way is key, and is much more effective if everyone is considered anonymous.
  3. Diversity. Encourage the HR department to employ diversity metrics to spot any hidden bias in the organization. Moreover, using statistical analysis for performance appraisals can be a good way to spot any patterns of potentially biased evaluations.
  4. Language. Loaded language, especially in performance reviews and recruitment methods, can be detrimental and confusing for staff. For example, “Sally is slow and lazy” is much different than “Sally did not complete this task, therefore she did not meet her goal”. Using adjectives to define an employee, rather than explicitly stating their performance can be very problematic. For example, if a recruitment manager says she needs someone “smart, and innovative”, this can trigger implicit bias. Rather, she should say that the organization needs someone to “increase innovation investment by 5% and introduce the organization to social media”.
  5. High-involvement. Adopting high-involvement workplace methods, such as coaching and mentoring, helps encourage more participation and opportunity, organization-wide.
  6. Evaluate evaluators. Don’t assume the recruiter and interviewer are fair and objective. They too, need to be evaluated and assessed in terms of bias. Using a diverse panel of interviewers will help in selecting candidates who will be successful and help the organization grow. If there is a bias concern, include more structured interview questions so it stays on track.

It is hard to say whether we will ever be truly free of bias, and perhaps truly freeing ourselves of bias is not in our best wishes. It is clear that people will not become less bias by discriminating less. Less bias results from being more proactive in learning about what classifications differentiate individuals and groups. If you’re curious about your implicit bias, the Harvard IAT test is available online here. For more information about effective, non-biased strategic recruitment and human resource development, visit Canadian Recruitment Agency, People First HR Services.

About The Author Meghan Tooley is a commerce student and active online blogger from Winnipeg, Manitoba. She often offers her views on ethics standards surrounding human resource development, as it relates to industry trends. She writes on behalf of Metric Marketing, a marketing/communications firm also based in Winnipeg.

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