Caroline Gourlay is an independent business psychologist based in Bath who writes about the application of psychology in the workplace, including its risks and limitations. She is interested in trends in psychological research as well as the nitty-gritty practicalities of using psychology at work. Caroline has worked with large corporations and in the public sector, but her real interest is in medium-sized, owner-managed businesses, including family business. She helps organisations to select the right people to fit their organisation and coaches executives to enable them to fulfil their potential.

Once upon a time, what people sold was their labour. So long as they kept out of trouble and did a full day’s hard graft, their employers were happy. In some low skilled jobs, that still how it works. But for many people, it isn’t.

In a professional job, you sell your knowledge and expertise, so understandably, employers want to know what you can do, how you might do it and whether you’ll fit in. As a psychologist, I spend a lot of time assessing people’s aptitudes, personalities and motivations, on behalf of employers, in order to answer those questions. I recognise that it is somewhat intrusive but believe it is justified, particularly if you’re going for a leadership role and your behaviour could have a major impact on others. But I do stop and question how much I need to know. In particular, I wonder how much employers should be allowed to pry into your inner lives. Is it anyone else’s business how you feel, for example? Is it enough to work hard or do you have to be happy while you’re doing it?

And now, it seems, employers may be able to access your unconscious. Unconscious bias is a hot topic in psychology and, increasingly, in HR. And rightly so. Read Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking fast and slow’ if you want to see how often your judgement is flawed. Researchers at Harvard University have developed a test which uncovers one form of unconscious bias – bias towards or against people of different race, sexual orientation, gender and so on – by measuring micro-second differences in response time, which are very difficult to fake.

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is ingenious and incredibly simple. Whilst not without its critics, the science seems pretty robust. Now available as a commercial product, it fits perfectly into a workplace culture concerned about fairness and diversity. As a bleeding heart liberal, I think it’s incumbent on all of us to examine our own prejudices

But I also think that we should pause and consider how we use this technology. I don’t want a society which tolerates racist police officers, homophobic teachers or sexist CEOs. But neither am I comfortable with the idea of introducing the ‘thought police’ into the workplace. Research with the IAT suggests that most (though not all) of us have at least a mild bias towards people like ourselves. How strong a bias is acceptable? What happens if it’s too high?

In the context of, say, a diversity awareness workshop, I can see that this tool would be incredibly useful for people to look at their own biases. But under what circumstances should others be allowed to see the results? And what do they do with them?

As an HR community, in which I include business psychologists, we are the people who often introduce new assessment techniques. We advise on their use and are the custodians of the information they generate. That’s a powerful role and one we should take seriously. Before we get to the stage – which will surely come one day – where assessment is replaced by a combination of brain scanning and DNA testing, perhaps it is time to stop and ask ‘How much is an employer entitled to know?’

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