Big Business is Getting Into the Act

Neuroscience has convincingly demonstrated what many psychologists have always known: bias is inevitable and ever-present. Now big business is coming to be aware of its high cost to productivity.

Using new programs that train people to learn about their built in prejudices, they hope to maximize the contribution of such frequently overlooked groups as introverts, ethnic minorities, and just plain strangers – not to mention overcoming the far more blatant and ubiquitous problems of discrimination against women and blacks. The Wall Street Journal reported: “As many as 20% of large U.S. employers with diversity programs now provide unconscious-bias training, up from 2% five years ago, and that figure could hit 50% in five years.”

It described a program at BAE, a major defense contractor, and described the approach of Melissa Lambert, one of the trainers: “I don’t want you to feel guilty about any biases that you have,” she told her group. Over the course of two hours, attendees watched brief videos, participated in partner exercises and discussed research summaries to understand why bosses make employment decisions that inadvertently give preference to tall individuals, thin ones, those without arm tattoos or extroverts.”

“It’s a blind spot,” Ms. Lambert observed. The trick is to “hit the pause button and question things” before you act, she said. This “no fault” approach is vital, not only to prevent people from being defensive but to help them understand how inevitable and normal such biases are.

The Journal noted: “BAE launched its unconscious-bias training amid a multipronged push to bring more women and minorities into its managerial ranks.” This was not only to comply with regulations prohibiting discrimination but, more importantly, recruit the kind of talented people that had previously been screened out during the hiring process.

The hiring panels previously “had a tendency to select white males,” recalls BAE’s chief talent officer. Between May 2011 and May 2013, BAE says, the number of women and people of color in senior management rose nearly 10%.

But to reach those numbers BAE had to do more that train employees to be aware of their unconscious biases. Among the efforts that the chief executive Linda Hudson spearheaded in 2011: “A woman or a person of color now participates in interview panels for potential middle managers and executives.” That not only provides a wider perspective on potential hires, it can also inhibit the expression of prejudice among whites. Moreover, BAE is moving towards color-blind applications so that screeners are deprived of the information that could trigger their biases from the beginning. (See, “Bringing Hidden Biases Into the Light.”)

Training does not dispose of bias, prejudice and discrimination. Many such attitudes are deeply entrenched, and they are often also supported by self-interest. Members of groups that have enjoyed privileged access to certain jobs, for example, will not want to relinquish their advantages. Moreover, identities are often deeply entrenched and linked to attitudes towards other identities. Removing the bias towards others will undermine the identity itself. But these are steps in the right direction.

Ultimately, biases will only disappear when differences that make a difference are no longer perceived, and that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.