Partners in study gave legal memo a lower rating when told author wasn't white

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A legal memo drafted with the help of five law firm partners helped a leadership consulting firm demonstrate unconscious biases in the workplace.

The experiment was conducted by leadership consulting firm Nextion, according to the Forbes blog She Negotiates. Above the Law commented on the findings.

Nextion inserted 22 errors in the memo. Seven were minor spelling or grammar errors, six were substantive technical writing errors, five were errors in fact, and four were errors in the analysis of the facts, according to this summary (PDF) of the study.

Sixty partners from 22 law firms who agreed to participate in a “writing analysis study” received copies of the memo. Half were told the memo was written by an African-American man named Thomas Meyer, and half were told the writer was a Caucasian man named Thomas Meyer. Fifty-three partners completed the task. Of those, 29 received the memo supposedly by a white man and 24 received the memo supposedly by a black man.

The reviewers gave the memo supposedly written by a white man a rating of 4.1 out of 5, while they gave the memo supposedly written by a black man a rating of 3.2 out of 5. The white Thomas Meyer was praised for his potential and good analytical skills, while the black Thomas Meyer was criticized as average at best and needing a lot of work.

Reviewers found an average of 2.9 out of seven spelling and grammar errors in the memo by the white Thomas Meyer and 5.8 out of seven errors in the memo by the African-American Thomas Meyer. Fewer technical writing and factual errors were also found in the memo by the supposedly white writer, though the disparity wasn’t as great.

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