Thursday, April 14, 2005

Happily Paying the Price For Your Bias

This article describes a study showing that store clerks tend to be more rude to obese customers:
Investigators found that when women wore a prosthetic suit designed to make them look obese, they were treated more rudely, and received fewer smiles and less eye contact from sales clerks at a Houston, Texas, shopping mall than when they shopped without the fat suit.

Sales clerks -- almost three-quarters of whom were women -- also tended to end interactions with obese shoppers more quickly, and use a negative tone with them.
Laura writes about this from her own personal experiences shopping. Alas, a Blog addresses the idea that sales clerks are expressing "moral disapproval", since they became more friendly to customers who mentioned that they were dieting.

These are all interesting perspectives that you should definitely read, but one thing from the article just leapt out at me:
A survey of shoppers also showed that people who were obese said they experienced more discrimination from sales clerks, which caused them to spend less time in a store and less money while there. This shows that store owners have a financial, as well as ethical, incentive for addressing discrimination among their staff, King said.
(Emphasis mine)

Set aside, for a moment, the rightness or wrongness of treating people rudely because of your own bias. This is a prime example of how bias and discrimination has an economic cost that tends to get forgotten. Or, put another way, sometimes doing the right thing pays off more than doing the discriminatory thing. For me, this really brings home just how pervasive certain prejudices are. People cling to them even when it is costing them money. How whacked is that?

Now, maybe these clerks don't see the economic impact. If they're not paid on commission, then the economic result of their rudeness is a little less tangible. I also understand that working retail isn't always very fun and being polite to customers all day long can wear you down. But still.

This reminded me of something that Laura observed several years ago when working as a salesperson at a furniture store. She and her co-workers were paid on commission. One of the guys there was a self-professed racist...he actually admitted it. If, say, a Hispanic couple walked into the store looking for furniture, he would always show them the cheapest item in the store. He always assumed they couldn't afford anything better. He wasn't particularly friendly to them, either.

Laura, on the other hand, would actually treat all the customers equally. Many times, the Hispanic couple had just as much money to spend as anyone else. Treating all customers with respect netted her larger commissions.

When hearing stories like this, it is worthwhile to think about the implications beyond things like shopping. How does this dynamic operate in the workplace, for example? Oftentimes the argument against anti-discrimination laws for employers suggests that companies would never discriminate because it is against their own economic interest. Corporations always hire the most qualified people, right? Well, if individual humans sometimes let their personal prejudices cost them money, isn't it just as likely that companies -- which are of course made up of those individual people -- might do the same?

Something worth thinking about.

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