Warning About Implicit Bias Awareness Tests

Please read this important article I wrote for SHRM on how implicit bias is a real problem and so are the tests that purport to measure it.

We all know that not all bias is conscious. Some bias is unconscious—often, referred to as implicit bias.

This means that we may be engaging in bias without even knowing we are doing so. This is most likely to occur when we make snap judgments.

For example, most of us have read about, or at least heard of, studies that demonstrate the name on an application affects the likelihood a candidate will be selected for an interview. Men do better than women and candidates with names that are often associated with people of color are less likely to be selected than those with names that are not. In other words, Kesha will get fewer interviews than Karen, and Karen fewer than Kevin.

To help bring implicit bias to conscious awareness, some employers are using tests designed to measure implicit bias. One popular example is the Harvard Implicit Awareness Test (“IAT”).

However, these tests are far from conclusive. There is substantial debate in the psychological and neurological communities about whether the Harvard IAT or other tests truly measure implicit bias.

Further, these tests create evidence that may be used against employers. Let me give you an example.

Your executive team members take implicit awareness tests. Cindy is your Chief Information Officer, and the results of Cindy’s implicit awareness test suggests an implicit bias in favor of women.

Cindy promotes Susan over Zachary. Zachary’s counsel argues that the results of Cindy’s test help establish gender bias.

Are the test results admissible at trial? The law is not yet settled but the answer may be “yes.”

What do you do if admissible? Hire an expert to discredit the test you administered?

At a very minimum, you need to be aware of this risk. My raising this legal risk is not hypothetical..

Better yet, consider ways to get at implicit bias without creating admissions that can ravage you in litigation. The options are as vast as your creativity.

This blog should not be construed as legal advice, as pertaining to specific factual situations or as creating an attorney-client relationship.

Jonathan A. Segal

About Jonathan A. Segal

Jonathan’s preventive and corrective approach to employment/HR issues includes counseling, policies, training, agreements and audits. Areas of substantive focus include, for example: gender equality, wage and hour compliance, social media and employee engagement. When Jonathan isn’t counseling employers or dedicating his time to SHRM and the HR community, he can be found volunteering his time and efforts to animal rescue. Jonathan is also mad about Mad Men, writing and speaking on the employment issues arising out of the MadMen Era! Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law.