Self-interest and Affirmative Action: Why Employers should voluntarily adopt Affirmative Action Policies

I am uncertain how the ethical considerations surrounding affirmative action balance out as an issue of public policy. However, there appears to be an argument for private companies to adopt a policy favoring minorities and other under-represented groups in their hiring decisions that bypasses the tricky ethical issues raised in the debate. This argument is one from pure economic self-interest. As a general rule, the rational choice when deciding between multiple, comparably qualified candidates is to hire the one who is under-represented in your field. The reason for this is that, whether you know it or not, there is an above average chance that in creating your initial evaluation of the candidates, you misevaluated the qualifications of the candidates as a result of unconscious biases.

There is a growing body of data suggesting that unconscious biases affect large portions of the population, and that they negatively affect hiring decisions. The data on implicit or unconscious biases is growing rapidly in the research of cognitive psychologists. People are far more receptive to subtle environmental cues and social prejudices than they realize, and they appear to subject to them without regard to the individual’s conscious declarations a respect for equality. If you are interested in checking your own biases, you can google “project implicit,” which is being run by Harvard. In terms of jobs or applications, studies have shown that having an African American sounding name will make it harder to find a job or a place to live, that being a woman will cause psychology professors to think you are worse in every category than a man with an identical CV, and that in general not resembling your potential employer in many ways is a good way to get your resume quickly chucked in the trash bin.

In terms of self-evaluation, people rarely recognize their own biases when they have them. Despite the fact that studies have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of people suffer from a wide variety of implicit biases, people routinely exempt themselves from these statistical facts. This is an instance of what is known as the “Dunning-Kruger” effect. Other examples include the fact that almost everyone thinks they are an above average driver and that 93% of psychology professors believe their work is superior to that of their peers. So, there is both a good chance that you are biased and that you don’t realize this fact.

Given the fact that a large portion of the population is influenced by bias without realizing it, and that this is relevant in decisions about who to hire, the rational thing to do if you are in this position is to take these facts into account in your decision-making. If you have two candidates for a job who you believe to be roughly equal in qualifications, one of whom is of a group often biased against in your profession, there are two possibilities. First, you may not be subject to a bias. If that is the case, you are no worse off hiring the minority candidate, or the candidate you may be biased against. Since they initially appeared to be just as qualified, it won’t hurt you to go with the underrepresented individual. Second, you may be subject to a bias without realizing it. In that case, the candidate you thought to be equally qualified is actually more qualified, and so you are better off hiring the minority candidate. So, if you are in this position, the best decision is to hire the minority candidate. Everyone who is not currently considering me as a job candidate should take this to heart.






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