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Do Biased Managers Decrease Workplace Performance?

A recent Harvard study showed that “when managers hold negative beliefs, even unconscious ones, about minority workers, minority employees perform much worse than they do with unbiased bosses.” The study’s author called the manager bias a “self-fulfilling” prophecy.

Newly hired cashiers at 34 stores of a French grocery chain were studied. They worked for different managers on different days, allowing the researchers to look at how the same workers performed under different managers. A “quasi-random” computer program created the workers’ schedules. Employees from North and Sub-Saharan Africa were identified as minorities (France does not allow workers to be asked about their ethnicity) based on their names. Manager bias was determined by the Implicit Association Test, which psychologists rely upon and is believed to be hard for subjects to manipulate answers.

Minorities were found to have performed much worse when they worked with biased managers. In some instances, the workers would avoid coming to work when they were assigned to those managers. If they did come to work, the minority workers would be less likely to stay late when working for the biased managers. In analyzing the data, the researchers found that the minority workers earned 2.5% less as a result of manager bias; they also found that the workers worked more slowly both in scanning items and the time between customers. Non-minority workers showed no difference in work performed from manager to manager. Interestingly, the study did not find that the biased managers treated the workers poorly. The impact was much more subtle; the minorities had less interaction with the biased manager. Other research has shown, that “individuals with implicit biases toward a group are less likely to speak to, more hesitant in speaking to, and less friendly toward group members.” The researchers in this study espoused that in situations where managers work a great deal with employees, larger losses in performance may exist