Monday, March 20, 2006

Suppress Without Mercy the New Trotskyites (in HR)

An article in HR Magazine last month, "Detecting Hidden Bias," is a most intriguing read. The subhead deftly captures the story's essence: "You may not see it, but it’s probably lurking among your managers—and perhaps even in you."

The article discusses the malign menace of unseen, nigh undetectable bias in human resource departments. Despite the lawsuits, training, online courses, seminars, conferences, and sensitivity efforts, the threat remains -- more dangerous than ever:
According to analysis conducted by a Harvard University-led research team, it is entirely possible that you and your manager are biased—and that you don’t even know it.

Such hidden biases can be disastrous for the employees who suffer as a result of them; they also can damage businesses by leading managers and employees to make flawed business decisions in a number of areas, including hiring, promotion, training opportunities and project assignments. For HR, the task is clear, but daunting: Help uncover and address such bias before problems arise.

That language -- uncover and address mental tendencies that you don't even suspect in yourself -- sounds familiar. Now, what other tendency drove executives crazy and demanded ever harsher efforts to identify, expose, force confessions, and liquidate from an organization?

Then I remembered -- accusations of hiring bias are the 21st century equivalent of being called a Trotskyite in the USSR in the 1930s.

In reality, the followers of Leon Trotsky were routed from the USSR's political life quickly. They had no visibility and no political base against Stalin's terror, with Trotsky himself, the Prophet Outcast in the words of biographer Isaac Deutscher, hurled into exile and eventually assassinated in Mexico in 1940.

Still, Stalin found the accusation of Trotskyite tendencies an excellent tool for flaying his hapless allies in the 1930s. He argued that the opposition from Trotskyites and the other despised class, peasant kulaks, only sharpened as their numbers decreased and their overt hostility lessened. The threat went underground and had to be rooted out and liquidated with increasing ruthlessness. The class struggle could never end.

Consider the process of rooting out the threat of Nikolai Bukharin, a favorite of Lenin's with whom Stalin played cat and mouse for years. Here is part of the last plea of Bukharin at his 1938 show trial:
I plead guilty to being one of the leaders of this 'Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites.' I plead guilty to the sum total of crimes committed by this counter-revolutionary organization, whether or not I knew of, whether or not I took part in, any particular act... For three months I refused to say anything. Then I began to testify. Why? Because while in prison I made a revaluation of my entire past. For you ask yourself: "If you must die, what are you dying for?"

The language eerily parallels HR Magazine: Unstated, unconscious tendencies require confessions and a "revaluation." Denial of such tendencies merely confirms their stubborn presence.

The HR Magazine article quotes results of the efforts of the Southern Poverty Law Center to extract confessions from the New Trotskyites. Nikolai Bukharin would identify with the mindset:
“Bigotry is a persistent social problem in this country, and we can’t escape being socialized in this context,” observes Jennifer Smith-Holladay, the center’s senior adviser for strategic affairs. Smith-Holladay says her own results uncovered a preference for white people—a group to which she belongs—and a preference for heterosexual people, “a group to which I don’t belong.

“I discovered that I not only have some in-group favoritism lurking in my subconscious, but also possess some internalized oppression in terms of my sexuality,” Smith-Holladay adds.

Lesson learned? “In the case of my own subconscious in-group favoritism for white people, for example, my charge is to be color-conscious, not color-blind, and to always explicitly consider how race may affect behaviors and decisions,” Smith-Holladay says.

HR Magazine asks, as did Lenin in a different context, what is to be done? Actually, HR Magazine provides its plan of action uder this headline: "Help for Rooting Out Hidden Bias."

Final note: As far as I could tell, HR Magazine did not uncover a single case of actual bias in action. The article is entirely theoretical.

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