A top U.S. Forest Service executive told his employees to probe their own “unconscious bias” on everything from race and sexuality to the disabled and fat people, asking them to use an unproven assessment tool to explore their feelings.
The online test, which Forest Management Director Bryan Rice urged other agency directors to use as well, specifically warns of problems when it is taken “outside of the safeguards of a research institution.” Users also are told to be careful about how far to go in interpreting the results.
Mr. Rice, in a March 11 email to his employees, also instructed them to read a New York Times piece titled “Straight talk for white men,” which argues that white men benefit from unconscious bias. He also shared a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that shows managers are more likely to hire those with a “very white sounding name” over those with a “very African American sounding name.”
In an email to The Washington Times, Mr. Rice said he believed the tests would help build a better workplace for his team.
“The intent of using the unconscious bias material is to assist with efforts to foster a work environment where everyone is respected and valued,” he said. “The unconscious bias material can help us explore diversity and inclusion in the workplace. It was included in a discussion of diversity as part of a continuous series of collaborative discussions on a variety of topics we have on my staff that cover key Forest Service policies and values as a means of fostering continued awareness.”
Mr. Rice did not respond to questions about which tests he took, nor what biases were exposed by those assessments.
The executive instructed his employees to take two tests each, saying the “results are for you to use and think about in your own situations.” He said they would talk about the issue at a meeting scheduled for next week.
One senior congressional aide said the Forest Service should have bigger things to worry about.
“At some point this year, thousands of Americans will have to flee their homes because of catastrophic wildfires caused by poorly managed Forest Service lands,” the aide said. “And when some of those people return to smoldering piles that were once their homes, they will be comforted that under this administration, the Forest Service has been vigilant in testing against unconscious biases.”
Mr. Rice became director of the Forest Management branch of the service last year. According to a service newsletter, he is a Cherokee who started his government career as part of a hotshot crew fighting forest fires in Montana, served as a forester in the Peace Corps and worked at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The bias assessments Mr. Rice asked employees to take are hosted at Implicit.Harvard.edu and include tests of whether someone leans toward President Obama or other presidents, whether someone prefers light-skinned to dark-skinned people, and whether someone has “an automatic preference for straight relative to gay people.”
Tests are based on how quickly one associates feel-good words and feel-bad words with the subjects of the test. To test whether someone prefers straight or gay people, users are asked to click a key when they see a “good” word or “bad” word, and when they see a picture of a gay couple and a straight couple. The speed of word association is used to calculate someone’s preferences.
The authors of the tests didn’t reply to requests for comment Thursday, but in their online explanations they warn that they “make no claim for the validity” of their assessments. They also warn of dangers of “misuse” and say “it poses the possibility of causing harm” by revealing troubling aspects of human nature.
“The [assessment] has potential for use beyond the laboratory; however, there are problems with using it outside of the safeguards of a research institution,” the test authors said.
Mr. Obama in 2011 signed an executive order calling on agencies to promote diversity, including specific plans for each agency.
According to the latest statistics from the Office of Personnel Management, the federal workforce in 2012 was 65 percent white, 18 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 2 percent Native American and 1 percent who were more than one race.
There are no specific details for the Forest Service but the Agriculture Department, which oversees the service, was 75 percent white, 12 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 2 percent Native American and 1 percent who were more than one race.
Governmentwide, 57 percent of the workforce was male, 7.6 percent were disabled, and 2.2 percent identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.