The Impartial Public Servant

Impartial judgment is part of the deal for public servants. There's no room for bias. But, writes Bob Stone, many factors conspire to rob us of our chance at true impartiality.
September 12, 2007
Bob Stone
By Bob Stone  |  Contributor
Bob Stone is a GOVERNING contributor. He consults, teaches ethical leadership and leading change, and serves as a member of the governing council and faculty of the Ukleja Center for Ethical Leadership at California State University, Long Beach.

I'm a huge fan of the USC Trojans. I've noticed that much of the time that pass interference is called against the Trojans it should really not have been called. In the same vein, the officials miss obvious infractions by USC's opponents.

I like to think of myself as an objective observer, but of course I'm really not. My USC sympathies impose a powerful, if unconscious, bias on my judgment.

Everybody has biases: we love some people, we dislike some, we like some schools, we admire people in some occupations. We recognize these biases.

But we also make assumptions, almost unconsciously, that hijack our impartiality. There's a classic experiment in which the test subject is shown a film of an argument on a subway train. A white person, shabbily dressed, argues with an African American man in a suit, and after angry words have passed, pulls a knife. That's the end of the film. Then the test subject reports what he has seen to another test subject, who passes it on to a third, and so on.

It takes an average of three retellings for the knife to migrate to the African American man's hands. The bias is a deep-seated assumption that a black man is far more likely to pull a knife on a white man than vice versa.

Some biases are based on facts (a young man in jeans with a headband and tattoos is more threatening on a lonely dark street than a middle-aged woman in heels and a dress), some based on blood relations (my children are more beautiful than yours), and some on sentiment (I like USC).

Biases can be useful ("Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's."), harmless (Go, Trojans!), or harmful (The black man had the knife). Acting on the basis of bigotry is obviously unethical; bias against Mom's or for the Trojans is harmless unless you're a restaurant critic or a football referee.

Impartial judgment is part of the deal for public servants. Americans count on it. There's no room for bias in tax assessment, zoning decisions, policing, judging, or contract awards. But many factors conspire to rob us of our chance at true impartiality.

First is our own experience. We may have an old friendship with a person who is seeking a variance from the city, or with a subordinate at work who's due for an evaluation. The best we can do in such circumstances is to recognize our bias and opt out: recuse ourselves from the zoning process, or have a trusted knowledgeable colleague do--or at least draft--the performance review.

Second is other people's attempts to influence us. A gift or an invitation to dinner or a game may be proffered as acts of generosity or friendship, often sincerely. But even the fact of the invitation can introduce a bias in the inviter's favor (or sometimes, in his disfavor).

We've heard it said that "I wouldn't sell out for the price of a dinner or a ticket to the big game." Or "It's preposterous to think that I can be bribed by a $50 trinket."

But selling out or bribing isn't the issue, certainly not for honest people like us. Rather it's influence, just an attempt to put the decision in friendly hands.

In such circumstances, we need to ask why the invitation was made. If it didn't come from a close friend or relative, chances are it was an attempt to erode our impartiality. Again, the best ethical choice is recusal.

Sometimes our impartiality is threatened by an inquiry from a boss, a friend or relative, or even a stranger. If the boss asks, "How's my friend Joe doing?" you now know that Joe's performance is of interest to the boss. Now Joe becomes special, and your impartiality is compromised. Or if a reporter asks about an issue--a permit application or a zoning variance--that issue becomes more prominent in your mind, and you may be tempted to raise its place on your to-do list.

For many activities, impartiality is so critical that even the appearance of bias is a serious detriment. It erodes the confidence of all who are counting on a fair hearing--whether for a governmental regulatory action, an issue with law enforcement, or a legal proceeding. If the job requires impartiality, it also requires the appearance of impartiality.

No free coffee and doughnuts for cops. Sometimes, not even any schmoozing. Leora Krygier is a referee in Los Angeles Juvenile Court. She is paid not only to judge impartially, but also to present an image of impartiality. Because arresting officers often knew the bailiffs in her courtroom, they often took a seat next to them and engaged in friendly chats. To avoid giving defendants the impression that the court was allied with the prosecution she forbade the officers from socializing with the bailiffs in the courtroom.

A public servant needs to work at impartiality. The first step is to understand that e verybody has biases. You may have to look hard to find yours. Be open about them, and recognize that they detract from your ability to make impartial judgments. Where possible, avoid making judgments in which you can't be completely impartial; where it's not possible, bend over backwards to be fair. Rather, more than fair.