Treating workers like unthinking primitives

The idea that workplaces should root out employees’ ‘unconsious biases’ is patronising and illiberal.

In the human resources (HR) field in which I work, there is currently a lot of discussion about people’s unconscious biases in the workplace. You know the type of thing: unconscious bias against women; unconscious bias in favour of men; unconscious bias against people with different ethnic backgrounds, and so on.

So when an email dropped into my inbox urging me to test my unconscious bias using the ‘implicit association test’, I was intrigued. For the next few minutes, I tested myself to see if I was ‘gender prejudiced’, typing certain letters to indicate positive or negative associations with particular statements.

Then came the results: ‘Your data suggest a moderate association of Male with CAREER and Female with FAMILY, compared to Female with CAREER and Male with FAMILY.’

What a huge non-surprise. Does it matter if my ‘unconscious bias’ makes me mildly disassociate females from careers? Surely what is more significant than my ‘unconscious bias’ is my conscious judgement. That is, I consider myself an objective, rational person, and when I recruit new staff, my decisions are based on criteria that apply to all candidates. If I were to let any ‘prejudice’ show, my fellow interviewers would put me right.

Unfortunately, many in the HR profession have bought into this concept of dealing with ‘unconscious bias’ and are offering training and education to fellow professionals. A report published by Business in the Community (BITC) at the end of 2012 claimed that recruitment of ethnic minorities has increased in organisations where employers have been educated about their ‘unconscious bias’.

Now, it does not take a rocket scientist to work out that if an organisation is focusing on recruiting ethnic minorities, then the number of ethnic-minority recruits will increase, just as the number of women in management positions will increase if you implement gender quotas. What these methods do not establish, however, are the benefits of ‘unconscious bias’ training.

It may be practically ineffective, but ‘unconscious bias’ training is successful in one regard: it suggests to HR departments that people’s unconscious thought processes are more important than their conscious ones. It encourages managers to view their employees less like humans and more like animals. But unlike animals, we think, we reason and we act. We make decisions and judgements. But unconscious bias theory pays no heed to any of that.

Many people who work in HR, frustrated that we do not live in a world without prejudice, have taken to blaming themselves for not having an ‘inclusive workplace’ that exactly reflects the broad spectrum of people in society. As Professor Binna Kandola, a psychologist and diversity consultant, put it: ‘I think the problem lies in us… Although we live in a sophisticated world and think we are rational and objective, the neuroscience tells us that we respond to people in primitive ways.’

Kandola’s arguments do not ring true. Our everyday experience tells us that we have an enormous capacity to be objective. We can and do supersede the unconscious mind.

Take the example of Jesse Jackson. He was a prominent black civil-rights campaigner who was twice a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in the US in the Eighties. Philip Tetlock, professor of organisational behaviour at the University of California, and Hal Arkes, professor of psychology at Ohio State University, cite Jackson’s statement from a decade ago about how bad he felt when he was campaigning and he would ‘walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery… then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved’.

Jackson would probably do poorly in the IAT tests, yet no one could accuse him of being prejudiced against African Americans. Should we remember him for the result of his ‘unconscious bias’ tests (if he ever takes them) or for his civil-rights campaigning? By privileging unconscious bias, we trivialise people’s conscious activities.

Another example that challenges the proponents of ‘unconscious bias’ is the election of US president Barack Obama in 2008. The IAT claims that 88 per cent of white Americans have an ‘implicit bias’ against blacks and in favour of whites. Yet despite their supposed ‘unconscious bias’ preference for whites, Americans still chose a black man to be their president. Politics, particularly frustration with the incumbent Republicans, had more to do with Obama’s election than unconscious thoughts.

As well as being contradicted by the way people act, another reason we should not go along with the ‘unconscious bias’ approach is that it leads to intrusion into the private sphere. It suggests that what we unwittingly think in private should become a matter of public interest. But our private thoughts should really be of no concern to anyone at work unless we choose to make them public. It is all too common today to blur the line between private and public, but that does not mean we in the HR field should follow suit. All of us need space to work through our ‘dark thoughts’. Private reflection and informal discussion with close friends and colleagues is the best solution.

One thing HR professionals can blame themselves for is helping this situation come about. Many relationships at work have become formalised in recent years, through reporting mechanisms, processes and procedures. The workplace was once a much freer, less-regulated environment, where opinions (prejudiced or otherwise) could be debated publicly. We may not have liked all the things we heard, but at least the workplace had the advantage of being open, allowing people to confront words and behaviours they disagreed with.

Before the ‘unconscious bias’ theory spreads to more workplaces, and workers find the deepest recesses of their minds being tapped by experts, HR professionals should talk openly about the problem of further regulation in the sphere of work and everyday life.

Para Mullan is a HR professional.

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