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12 Days of HR: A Lesson on Implicit Bias Inspired by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Day 6 ChristmasThe story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has been a long-time holiday staple, both in film and in song. The gist of the story is that Rudolph was born with a glowing red nose, and because of it, he was made fun of and forbidden from participating in the reindeer games. The story provides a notable example of bias—and a great segue for examining bias in the workplace.

The type of "explicit" bias exhibited toward Rudolph is relatively easy to recognize and readily addressed by federal and state anti-discrimination laws. However, "implicit bias" (sometimes called "unconscious bias"), can be trickier to identify. Implicit bias refers to positive or negative beliefs about individuals or groups that are triggered automatically and exist on an unconscious level. Because these biases live below the surface, it is less obvious when we are acting on these biases, and so awareness of their existence is key.

Biases can be acted upon in many situations in the employment context, including hiring decisions. A manager's implicit racial bias could affect the pool of applicants that are called back for an interview. A well-known study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that job applicants with a White-sounding name elicited substantially more callbacks than an applicant with an African American sounding name. And although bias is commonly thought of in the context of a person's gender, skin color, or age, implicit bias may also be directed at myriad characteristics such a person's accent, marital status, style of dress, and even height. If a hiring manager has a pre-conceived notion that tall people make better supervisors, that bias could likewise cloud a determination on which applicant might be most qualified for an open position.

Because implicit bias does not exist at the conscious level, it can be difficult to determine how to address and mitigate it in your organization. The first step, of course, is to be aware—and spread awareness—that it exists. The non-profit organization Project Implicit has developed online tests to assess an individual's implicit bias in a variety of contexts, and it could be a useful tool to help raise awareness of hidden biases among your employees. You may also consider offering a training or workshop on implicit bias and including an open discussion on the issue. Finally, consider the processes that your organization uses for employment-related decisions. Establishing systematic and objective criteria to aid in your company's decision-making could help eliminate the impact of individual implicit biases in those contexts.

If you have questions about tackling implicit bias in your workplace, please feel free to call an attorney in Verrill Dana's Labor & Employment Group.

Topics: Discrimination