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Discrimination Training Helps Managers Overcome Unconscious Biases

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in Human Resources

Every manager needs anti-discrimination training. No exceptions. It's not just the managers who hold deep-seated prejudices who generate discrimination lawsuits. Managers who have no intention of discriminating can wind up inadvertently fueling a discrimination fire.

Case in point: A black assistant store manager worked in a predominantly white neighborhood. He turned down offers to manage stores that were located in lower-income areas, where more than 40% of the customers were also black, and indicated his desire to work in a more profitable store. When a store manager job opened up in a higher-income (and predominantly white) neighborhood, the job went to a white woman.

The assistant manager's own manager tried to make him "feel better" by telling him that the higher-income store "was possibly not ready to have a black manager" because it was well-known that some of the smaller, outlying towns in the area "have some very racist tendencies." Her feeling was that he would not have been very happy working there.

An appeals court allowed the assistant manager's race discrimination lawsuit to proceed, ruling that a reasonable jury could find that he was denied the promotion because he is black. Reason: The store manager's remark that he would not feel happy among white racists "is a standard euphemism for refusing a job to someone of a different race from the people he would be associating with." (Simple v. Walgreen Co., 7th Cir., No. 06-3990, 2007)

The manager may have had good intentions in trying to make the assistant manager feel better, but she basically admitted that his race was the reason he was denied the promotion.

Even managers who genuinely feel they view and treat everyone equally need anti-discrimination training. The reason: They may have unconscious biases that they don't even know are affecting their employment decisions. Your job is to make them aware of "hidden" biases.

Numerous studies show how discrimination can creep into hiring decisions — possibly without the decision-maker even realizing it. Note: Whether the participants in the following studies consciously or unconsciously discriminated is difficult to determine, but they are good examples of how your managers — who may never consciously think: "I don't want to hire a woman (or minority)" — may allow gender, race, or another protected characteristic to unconsciously influence them.

A study of orchestral auditions showed that female musicians had a better chance of being hired when the process was blind (i.e., the musicians performed behind a screen) than when the judges could see the performers.

A study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago involved sending 5,000 résumés with similar qualifications in response to job ads placed in Boston and Chicago newspapers. The résumés were randomly assigned stereotypically Caucasian sounding names, such as Emily, and stereotypically African-American sounding names, such as Lakisha. Result: The "Caucasian applicants" received 50% more callback interviews than the "African-American applicants."

Making managers aware of these issues is step one. The next step is to put hiring procedures in place that help managers maintain objectivity and reduce the effect of unconscious biases.

1. Establish hiring criteria that specify the qualifications needed for each job. Managers must be able to articulate court-worthy reasons for rejecting/accepting applicants based on the established standards.

2. Use a blind applicant-review system. Have all résumés sent to HR, which then makes copies with the identifying information blacked out. The copies get passed on to the appropriate managers to decide whom to call for an interview. With names and addresses taken out of the picture, it will be easier to argue in court that the managers based their decisions on qualifications alone.

Of course, once the managers see or speak to the applicants, it will be more difficult to keep the process objective. The next two steps can help.

3. Ask applicants the same questions. Give everyone the same shot to win the job. If allowed to wing it, an interviewer's biases may unwittingly affect the course of the interview. For example, an interviewer finds out that an applicant lives in a neighborhood that the interviewer associates with drug dealers. This may result in the interviewer holding the applicant to higher standards by asking more demanding questions and judging the applicant with a more critical eye.

4. Use diverse interviewers. There is a tendency to favor people who are like oneself. Eliminate this potential bias by placing diverse managers on an interview panel, requiring multiple rounds of interviews with different managers, etc.

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