How implicit bias can affect workplace diversity

Image result for implicit biasA human resources professional reviews the resumes of two candidates for potential interview for the same position. One candidate has a last name that is easier for the HR professional to pronounce and the pronunciation of the other’s last name is more difficult.

The two have the same qualifications, yet the hiring manager, likely in a subconscious way, opts to select to interview the candidate with the easier name to pronounce.

While it could be a case of unlawful discrimination, it is also an example of what’s known as implicit bias or implicit social cognition, said Meg Matejkovic, of counsel at the management-side labor and employment law firm of Kastner Westman & Wilkins (KWW).

“Unlike outright discrimination against a protected class such as race, gender or religion, implicit bias may not cross the legal line as much, but it certainly does impact many aspects of our workplace, including diversity and inclusion,” said Matejkovic, who counsels and trains employers on a variety of legal matters, including implicit bias.

On its website The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University describes implicit bias as “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.”

Because these biases are unconscious, most people are not even aware that they have them or that they can affect their judgment,” said Matejkovic, who has recently conducted several training sessions on this topic for KWW clients. “A simple example of implicit bias might be giving more credence to a statement made in a meeting by an older person versus a young person.

“During my training sessions, I try to raise participants’ awareness of what implicit bias entails in a non-accusatory way by sharing stories and examples as well as by conveying some of the research that has been done on this topic,” said Matejkovic, immediate past president of the Akron Bar Association. “I believe that it is important to raise awareness about this issue and how it could affect a person’s judgment inside and outside the workplace.”

Bradley Dunn, regional director at the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, has been working to educate Ohio residents about implicit bias for close to 10 years.

“The first thing I run into when doing a training is that participants often express guilt about implicit bias,” said Dunn. “I explain to them that there is no reason for them to feel guilty since this is something that their brains are doing without their input.

“Our brains are designed to take in information from all our experiences and filter it into what is important and what’s not,” he said. “Normally this is a good thing because it helps us distinguish between life and death situations.

“The problem with implicit bias in the workplace is that no matter how well intentioned a recruiter might be, there are times that one candidate simply feels more right than another,” he said. “The recruiter may not be able to put his/her finger on it, but it may still affect the hiring decision.”

Dunn said implicit bias can and does impact every field, including the legal profession.

“There have been studies done in which practicing attorneys were given identical memos and told the race of the student who had written the memos,” said Dunn. “The studies show the attorneys were more critical of the memos when the attorneys believed they were drafted by a minority.

“Implicit bias is not a popular topic, but it is one that we all need to be aware of if we are to take steps to prevent its negative impacts from occurring.”

Karen Adinolfi, vice president of the Akron Area Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), said the national organization has addressed implicit bias, inclusion and related topics at the national level.

“The topic (implicit bias) is not new and I believe it will continue to come up,” said Adinolfi, a partner in the Employment Services Group at Roetzel & Andress. “Employers are beginning to explore and address it.

“The knowledge and training is available but we must make employers realize that it is important and worthwhile for them to participate.”

Roetzel & Andress partner Ronald Kopp said during his tenure as president of the Ohio State Bar Association in 2016 and 2017, he advocated for the creation of workshops to address diversity in the legal profession, which led to statewide implicit bias training sessions for bar leaders.

Kopp now heads up the firm’s diversity and inclusion initiative and has put on training sessions at the firm for associates and partners.

“When our chairman Robert Blackham announced that he wanted to focus on increasing diversity in our firm, I asked if I could lead the charge as diversity and inclusion officer,” said Kopp. “As an older white male, I thought it was important that I lead the initiative to address problems from the top down. We want it known that we are doing far more than just giving lip service to this initiative.

“Increasing diversity is not just about going out and hiring diverse people; it is about making them feel included so that they want to remain at the firm,” said Kopp.

”To do this we must be aware of our own implicit biases,” he said. “I went through testing, and I became aware that I too have biases. I’ve been working on addressing them.

“Raising awareness about implicit bias will take time, but it is the only way to achieve a truly diverse and inclusive workforce,” Kopp said.


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