A test is being developed to detect hidden racism in job applicants
It is intended to unmask negative associations that potential employees could have towards ethnic groups.
Candidates are asked to put images of black and white faces into categories of "good/positive" and "bad/negative" using arrow keys on the keyboard. By getting them to respond to prompts as quickly as possible, the test aims to side-step what is known as "cognitive control" - the brief, but significant time lapse needed to give an "acceptable" answer rather than an instinctive or "honest" one.
The programme then automatically calculates a "response-index" that indicates a level of racial bias.
The test is being developed at London Metropolitan University and is aimed at the public sector and multinational companies. Its developers say it is harder to deceive than many of the psychometric tests used to gauge personality type. The test was condemned last night as a potential "Kafkaesque nightmare" where individuals are penalised for thoughts in their deep subconscious.
Philip Hammond, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said: "This sounds like an idea from the 'thought police'. What we require from employees is good work and decent behaviour. To start saying that we are going to discriminate against people because of some perceived subconscious bias is completely the wrong approach.
"We are already a heavily monitored society with people being watched in all kinds of ways. A test to delve in to the subconscious mind is frightening. You have to ask, where does it stop?"
However, Nigel Marlow, the principal lecturer in psychology at London Metropolitan who is developing the test, defended its use and said that organisations should take practical steps to screen for subtle "implicit attitudes" and beliefs about racism.
"When implicit attitudes are applied, often unwittingly, they can become stereotypical attitudes; a belief that members of some groups have certain negative and positive attributes, often not based on truth or fact," he said.
"The test, which we hope will be available within the next 12 months, is a subtle way to catch racists out. It is based on the implicit attitude theory, which suggests that sometimes people are not even aware of some of their deep-seated biases."
Academics have raised concerns about the test's fairness, however, and warn that it could put at a disadvantage candidates who are conscious of stereotypes and take measures to reject them.
Mark Parkinson, the author of books of psychometric testing, said: "It is true that the emotional part of the brain reacts first, so that part of the argument I can swallow.
"But how do the test developers know if they are reacting to the colour of the person, rather than if they are good looking or ugly, for instance?
"Someone may hold associations for all kinds of reasons, historical baggage, the way they were brought up, they might have just been mugged.
"But it is only if you have self-insight that you can do something about it. I think there is a fairness issue here."
Some organisations have already made efforts to unmask racist attitudes. In the wake of a BBC documentary in 2003 revealing racism among police recruits, the Home Office introduced tests designed to uncover racial prejudice. About 5 per cent of recruits fail the tests.