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Hidden bias unveils problems in the workplace

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Every single day, employees and employers throughout the commonwealth bring implicit biases into the workplace.

Though it’s rarely expressed, they carry attitudes about age, race, sex, gender, religion, and appearance into their workplace. It influences day-to-day business routines and hiring decisions.

Whether it’s assuming a millennial would be the best choice for a technology-based assignment over a Baby Boomer or even an employer hiring someone because they remind them of someone they know, these assumptions are not always accurate or fair.

When businesses base decisions on feelings and past experiences versus facts, employers might actually hinder their ability to expand or limit the opportunity for an employee to grow in their current work environment. Not being self-aware of such actions can create an unintended reputation, such as being ageist, racist or sexist.

Implicit bias, also known as implicit social cognition, is malleable, said Kedren Crosby, president of Work Wisdom LLC, a Lancaster-based consulting firm that specializes in organizational behavioral health. “There are ways that you can unlearn the biases. They call it debiasing techniques,” she said.

Crosby recommends the online Implicit Association Test (IAT). With the IAT, created by nonprofit Project Implicit, test-takers tap automatic associations between concepts, such as math and arts and attributes -- good or bad, male or female, self or other -- and thus identify some of those implicit biases.

Established in 1998 by three scientists from the University of Washington, Harvard University and the University of Virginia, Project Implicit serves as a way to educate the general public about hidden bias while also collecting data to continue studying the topic.

Serving as a virtual laboratory and data bank, Project Implicit includes the expertise of professors and researchers from all over the U.S. and internationally, including Calvin Lai, director of research for Project Implicit and assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University.

“We develop and use implicit measures to investigate thoughts and feelings that people may be unwilling or unable to report,” Lai said.

Since its inception, the Implicit Project has reached more than 25 million people.

With incidents of racial biases topping headlines nationally, regionally and even locally, Lai said the public interest has exploded. Awareness is the first step, but it’s not the only step. “Simply being aware does not make the problem go away,” Lai said.

From coffee shop to golf course

In April, a manager at a Starbucks in Philadelphia called the police on two African-American men for allegedly trespassing. The men hadn’t ordered anything, but were reportedly waiting for another member of their party to arrive. Starbucks recently settled with the men for an undisclosed amount and a pledge to create a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs. Starbucks also addressed the issue on a wider scale by closing more than 8,000 U.S. stores for several hours on May 29 to conduct racial-bias training for its employees.

Quick Tip

Blinding recruitment: cover up the name on a resume of an applicant

By blinding (covering up) the name of an applicant on a resume, employers remove the possibility of considering the candidate because they are male or female or of a particular ethnicity, said Calvin Lai, director of research for Project Implicit and assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University. Take it a step further and cover up the college or university the applicant is from, so the applicant isn’t considered on a favorable or unfavorable alma mater.

The police were also called to the Grandview Golf Club in York County in April after five African-American women were allegedly playing golf too slow and were asked to leave the course.

Though a date and time has yet to be determined, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission will hold a hearing in York County to investigate what took place at Grandview Golf Club.

“What I do think that these cases highlight is how they can happen in everyday life … even among people who might say they disavow holding racial views,” Lai said.

Tracy Pawelski, senior communications counsel for marketing communications firm Harrisburg-based PPO&S, said when incidents of biases hit the headlines, it’s a good reminder for companies to take stock in its own practices and policies.

“It’s always more effective to proactively manage your reputation and your brand. There is a saying, ‘If you are not telling your story, someone else will tell it for you,’” she said.

When incidents occur at an organization, unless they’re handled honestly and efficiently, they can erode trust with customers, employees and the public.

“An organization’s reputation is its most valuable asset. It drives whether people want to shop with you, want to buy a membership in your golf club, and whether employees are proud to work for you,” she said. “If people don’t know you before a crisis occurs, you will become defined by it.”

Pawelski said organizational culture is as important as it has ever been because culture tends to be driven by the “tone at the top” or the organization’s leadership.

“If there are policies in place, are they being enforced or ignored? Many organizations spend a lot of time defining their values. Do employees know or care what they are? There has never been a more pivotal time for HR leaders – who tend to be the gatekeepers on organizational culture,” she said.

Bias-related incidents do not necessarily speak for an entire geographic area. However, other businesses may face scrutiny over their own business practices. Some may even be asked to account for their own practices in order to reassure customers and the community that they can be trusted to do right thing.

One such industry where first impressions are especially key, is tourism, said Anne Druck, president of the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In July, the tourism bureau will take part in a new training alongside hospitality businesses partners hosted by the YWCA of York County.

“I believe that diversity is a dialogue not a destination, so we will strive to keep this dialogue open for our members,” Druck said.

In addition to the tourism bureau, the YWCA of York County has hosted several training workshops for merchants on how to create an accepting and welcoming environment for all people.

Jean M. Treuthart, CEO of the YWCA, said that during these trainings, members of the YWCA are helping groups examine their marketing materials, communication with customers and hiring practices.

The YWCA also provides an anti-biased education curriculum that’s introduced in schools. Treuthart said that as a result of the education provided to one school, students and faculty created a diversity club and the administration looked at its hiring practices as well as its school website to re-evaluate how they could communicate more broadly to the population it serves.

The hope is to create a ripple-effect that empowers organizations to pass on what they learn to others and partner with allies in their community.

“Awareness isn’t good enough anymore. We’ve got a lot of educating to do. We need to take action because with silence there will be no change,” Treuthart said.

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Emily Thurlow

Emily Thurlow

​Emily Thurlow covers York County​ for the Central Penn Business Journal. Have a tip? Drop her a line at ethurlow@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter @localloislane.

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