Practical Application: Evaluating Your Implicit Biases

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

Many bad business decisions are the result of implicit bias. Implicit bias affects decisions because it influences thoughts or actions through misrepresentation or misunderstanding.

Reflecting on a Poor Decision

Lauren was feeling a little deflated. Having been promoted to her first role with hiring responsibilities, she had taken a gamble that didn't pay off. About 2 weeks ago, she had interviewed Jeremy for a courier position. He was a perfect fit for the role except for one thing: almost 10 years ago, Jeremy had pled guilty to a theft charge related to a drug addiction. To his credit, he was upfront about it from the start.

Having a brother who also had experienced legal trouble resulting from addiction, Lauren knew better than anyone that some people need a second chance. Lauren knew that many of her brother's ups and downs had been related to his difficulties in getting a job, and she couldn't help but wonder if she might be preventing the same thing for Jeremy by offering him the job. She extended an offer of employment. When it came time for the pre-employment background check, Jeremy asked Lauren if it was really necessary. After all, he had told her everything from the start, and clearly, nothing new had come up. So, she skipped it.

Unfortunately, about three weeks after hiring Jeremy, a client who should have received a package called to inquire as to its whereabouts. The package, and Jeremy, had vanished. When Lauren's boss heard of this, his response was mixed. Lauren's mistake wasn't her attempt to give someone a second chance, and he didn't want to make her feel bad about that part of her decision. However, after checking into the situation a bit, it was clear to him that Lauren's implicit bias had caused her to (unintentionally) miss important red flags.

What kinds of bias did Lauren display? If you were Lauren's boss, how would you help her better measure her own implicit bias in the future?

Types of Bias

From his role as an experienced manager, Lauren's boss knew that a simple assessment tool could actually work wonders for identifying bias. In fact, he already had a great decision-tree that he built years ago for instances just like this. It looked at five kinds of implicit bias.

Affinity Bias

The first item on Lauren's bias assessment are questions about similarities. Since affinity bias is essentially bias that comes from similarities between yourself and another, assessing affinity bias can be done by answering questions like:

  • Do I have anything in common with someone or something else related to my opinion or decision?
  • Do I see some of my strengths or weaknesses in someone?
  • Am I expecting a good outcome because one is likely, or is it because I've seen it work in a different scenario?

Who or what caused Lauren's affinity bias in the scenario? Would these questions have changed the situation or helped Lauren avoid this kind of bias?

Confirmation Bias

The second element of the bias assessment from Lauren's boss prompts her to evaluate whether she has considered all the facts, or has only looked for facts that support a position she already holds. In Lauren's situation, a bias assessment tool could have helped guide Lauren through the process of due diligence. This would have helped her identify numerous sources of information rather than merely the few she chose to evaluate.

What sources did Lauren use to confirm her idea that Jeremy should be hired without caution? What specific omission did Lauren make as a result of confirmation bias? Since not everyone with a theft conviction will re-offend, would it be a confirmation bias to reject a candidate like Jeremy based on his criminal history alone?

Halo Effect

Lauren would also have benefited from a tool that could help her identify the difference between likability and suitability. Lauren ''liked'' Jeremy because she believed that he demonstrated honesty in his application. This was a particularly harmful implicit bias because Lauren's omission of a background check was based in part on what turned out to be a misleading statement on Jeremy's part.

Finish this statement made by Lauren in her head before she extended an offer: ''I can tell that Jeremy is an honest guy because he was up-front on his application. Since he was so truthful, I don't really need to...''

Perception Bias

Implicit perception bias occurs when judgments are made because of association rather than merit. In this case, perception bias could have affected Jeremy and Lauren in one of two ways:

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