Oops! Your Implicit Bias is Showing

Recent research conducted by the Nextions leadership consulting firm reveals the unconscious racial bias we all carry with us even when we're supposedly using objective criteria like how many spelling errors an employee makes.

In Written in Black and White, selected law firm partners were asked to evaluate a single research memo into which 22 different errors were deliberately inserted - 7 spelling/grammar errors, 6 substantive writing errors, 5 errors in fact, and 4 analytic errors. Half of the partner evaluators were told that the hypothetical associate author was African American and half were told that the author was Caucasian. 

Sadly, you know what's coming.

On a five point scale, reviews for the exact same memo averaged a 3.2 for the “African American” author and 4.1 for the “Caucasian” author. More surprising were the findings of "objective" criteria such as spelling. The partner evaluators found an average of 2.9 spelling and grammar errors for the "Caucasian" authors and 5.8 such errors for the "African American" authors. Overall the memo presumed to have been written by a “Caucasian” was "evaluated to be better in regards to the analysis of facts and had substantively fewer critical comments."

What To Do?

Nextions doesn't just locate business problems, it also attempts to assist its clients in solving  them. In addition to recommending implicit bias training for all firm attorneys, Nextions has helped its clients understand and remedy consistently negative ratings for minority hires.

Nextions worked with one law firm, for instance, to create an Assignment Committee that would blindly evaluate summer associate assignments. Unsurprisingly in light of its own research, the blind evaluations turned out to be "generally more positive for minorities and women and less positive for majority men." 

Although employees can't work "in the blind," there is clearly value in creating some assignments sole for salary and promotional evaluation to determine whether unconscious bias has creeped into the process by which new or prospective employees are rated. American business, which prides itself as being a meritocracy, shouldn't fear any process that improves its meritocratic score.

Anyone can test their own implicit biases by going on over to Harvard's Project Implicit and taking one or more of the "implicit association" tests featured there. To learn even more about the work done by Harvard and implicit biases in general, download or order a paperback copy of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.