Do Implicit Attitudes Interfere with Diversity Efforts?

Although many companies recognize the value of a workforce that is diverse and inclusive, and may have intuitive if unexamined ideas about what kinds of variation should be counted in measuring diversity, it isn’t easy to find concise, well-explained discussions of how diversity can be promoted and maintained. In particular, many employers struggle to enhance the diversity of their workforces through recruitment. This is a rich and complex topic, best worked through slowly and with reflection. But a convergence in scientific research suggests we begin by examining the company’s own practices to identify what may be holding back its diversity initiatives.

It’s always worth remembering that selecting or excluding a candidate for employment on the basis of a legally protected demographic category — race, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, and the others — is unlawful. Because of these restrictions on the use of protected categories as a factor in hiring decisions, many employers try to increase the diversity of their workforce by enriching their applicant pool, typically by advertising their openings in a wide variety of neighborhoods, engaging with minority professional associations, and so on. Even these approaches, however, sometimes result in a false and implicit perception (which we’ll touch on in a moment) that the pool lacks qualified candidates; and even if diverse candidates are hired, the company sometimes struggles to retain them. Implicit and unconscious attitudes toward members of some social groups may contribute to the situation.

As I’ve discussed earlier, researchers are learning that many of us, for reasons that are still unclear, have unconscious positive or pejorative associations with certain social groups, to the point that in laboratory settings (or in an online exercise) we sort pictures of the members of some groups more quickly and with fewer errors into a pile with “positive” words, and pictures from other groups more quickly and with fewer errors with “negative” words. This is not necessarily evidence of racial animus – nearly all of us have strong moral convictions regarding the undesirability of discriminatory treatment, and even if someone hesitates slightly before engaging with certain individuals based solely on how they appear to them, they usually have the self-discipline not to allow that hesitation to govern their conduct. But nonetheless, this implicit bias can still have troubling consequences. In Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald pointed out that implicit adverse racial attitudes can have their greatest impact on interactions between strangers. In an employment context, which tends to be marked by long-term relationships, we would expect implicit attitudes to be less evident – except during the interview process. And indeed, this is what we seem to find.

In her recent book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Amy Cuddy describes a study where researchers examined the body language of college admissions interviewers and compared this to how they rated the performance of the interview candidate; they found that interviewers’ body language had a profound effect on the perceived performance of the interview candidate. This by itself may not be surprising. However, the researchers also observed that the relative warmth or aloofness of the interviewers’ body language seemed to correlate with the race of the candidate – this isn’t to say that interviewers were hostile, only that they appeared to be less engaged, and perhaps less comfortable and less open, with minority candidates. Further studies found that the candidate’s perceived performance in the interview specifically correlated with the warmth of the interviewer’s body language. When interviewers were trained to respond to all candidates warmly – substituting deliberate conduct for the unconscious variations in body language that researchers had earlier remarked upon – significantly more minority candidates than before were found to perform well in their interviews and to be judged qualified to proceed.

These anecdotes lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Since our focus here is on promoting self-awareness and equality of opportunity, one interpretation is that interviewers’ implicit racial attitudes may inadvertently influence their body language; perhaps, for example, they mistakenly and self-consciously try to appear “fair” and “unbiased” when interviewing minority candidates, but let themselves relax when interviewing candidates they don’t think about as minorities. If so, this attempt at “fairness” would be poorly executed, and in fact self-defeating, because their impassivity interfered with the performance of minority interview candidates. Conversely, most people notice insincere warmth pretty quickly, and insincerity does little to put candidates at ease or help them to put their skills, individuality, or creativity on display.

As an alternative to such interpersonal clumsiness, which puts promising candidates at a disadvantage, we should remember that interviewers in the experiment, with training, were able to correct their unconscious responses. I would encourage anyone expecting to interview job applicants to take an implicit attitude test and reflect on what it tells us about our automatic reactions; this may allow us to pay closer attention to how we respond to the interview candidates, and perhaps revise some implicit choices. I wouldn’t encourage interviewers to fake a warm demeanor —that sounds horrendous—but I would encourage them to quite deliberately become interested in each candidate as an individual. This may be emotionally tiring, but it’s an investment of effort and energy that’s likely to produce results, because many people unconsciously reciprocate displays of interest and emotion: if you’re show a high level of genuine interest in each of the candidates, you may find them making far more compelling cases for why they’re the best person for the job. This may yield better hiring decisions, from a larger pool of qualified applicants, and incidentally promote the company’s broader aspirations for diversity and inclusion in the process.

This post was written by : John Keil

About the author : Mr. Keil is a partner at boutique labor and employment law firm Collazo Florentino & Keil LLP.