The topic of bias is has been the subject of continued discourse in American society over the past few months. While much of the conversation has focused on societal issues, this is an issue that plays itself out on a daily basis within organizations large and small. With this in mind, we offer a blog post written about hidden biases in the workplace.  As you read this interesting and thought provoking article, we ask you to consider the following questions and encourage you to share your thoughts with us.

  • What challenges do microagressions pose in your everyday working life?
  • As a leader, what strategies do you use to address them? How were these strategies received?
  • What does your organization do, both formally and informally, to reduce the impact of informal bias?

Hidden Biases in the Workplace: What they are, why they matter, and what you can do about it

When we hear about sexism in the workplace it may be tempting to envision an ostensibly chauvinistic male boss, leering at his female coworkers as they pass by, making condescending remarks toward women in meetings, and doing his best to lowball their salaries. However, this cartoonishly inappropriate figure is just a stereotype of what sexism in the workplace looks like – and like most stereotypes, it is not particularly accurate. Sexism, and most other forms of prejudice, rarely takes on such obvious forms in today’s work environment.

More often than not in the workplace of today, prejudice is covert and ostensibly “hidden.” But just because biases aren’t as obvious as they might have once been doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared. They occur in the form of microaggressions or everyday prejudice – the kind of bias that is typically considered so subtle or routine that it often goes unnoticed or, if detected, may be dismissed as insignificant. Moreover, these occurrences are often unintentional, further reinforcing the idea that they aren’t harmful (e.g., “Well, I didn’t mean it that way.”). For example, mistaking a female doctor for a nurse and assuming an Asian person is good at math are both microagressions rooted in common stereotypes.

The high price of everyday prejudice: Individual and organizational harm

Although microagressions may seem unimportant, their impact in the workplace is very real. For instance, the experience of everyday prejudice is linked to higher levels of depression and stress and lower self-esteem in those who are targets of bias. In fact, exposure to everyday prejudice can actually be more harmful to the self-esteem of those who are targeted than exposure to blatant prejudice. While this may seem counterintuitive at first, it actually makes sense. When subjected to very obvious biases that result in negative outcomes, the individual can point to the discrimination itself as the cause of the negative outcome, thus preserving his or her self-view. However, when bias is more ambiguous, it is less clear that the negative outcome is a result of bias, and individuals are therefore more likely to attribute negative consequences to a flaw in themselves.

Further, when microaggressions go unchallenged, they are reinforced, ultimately contributing to the formation of an organizational culture that is particularly unwelcoming to certain employees.

It is important to note that discriminatory behaviors are especially detrimental to culture when they are perpetrated by organizational leaders, as individuals feel particularly pressured to accept or justify their boss’ behavior. Over time, the stress of encountering and feeling forced to accept discriminatory behavior can harm employee well-being, increase turnover rates, and lower morale.

What you can do?

Discrimination is a sensitive topic, and, as such, many people hesitate to get involved or broach the subject. However, often the surest way to reduce the occurrence of discriminatory behavior is to call it out when it occurs, both in others, and in yourself.

When challenging biased behaviors in others, it is best to:

  • Focus on the behavior Describe what behavior you have noticed, and explain how it can be perceived as biased or discriminatory. Avoid telling someone that they themselves are biased, as this will quickly put them on the defensive and may also not even be entirely accurate (often times these behaviors really are unintentional, though that doesn’t make them acceptable).
  • Promote equality and diversity – For example, you can remind someone how their actions or attitude may make others in the workplace feel unvalued (e.g., “Don’t you want to work in an inclusive work environment? Do you see how that comment you made may make some individuals feel unwelcome?”). Forcing compliance (e.g., “You are not allowed to tell jokes like that”) may reduce the occurrence of outwardly biased behaviors, but is unlikely to convince people to actually change their attitudes toward those behaviors. Therefore, it is often best to pair “Zero Tolerance” with an approach that also promotes the value of diversity.

Additionally, you can adopt strategies that will help limit unintentional bias in yourself:

  • Make the unconscious….conscious! – Oddly enough, deliberately calling to mind stereotypes you may have about a certain group can actually help you reduce your reliance on them.

By bringing these to the surface, you can actively ask yourself “Am I making this judgment because it fits with the information available, or am I making assumptions about this person based on stereotypes?” Actively engaging in this thought process can make you less susceptible to unintentional bias.

  • Use inclusive language – Be conscious of the microagressions built into some phrases and terminology (e.g., telling a team it’s time to “man up”) and do not “default” to using masculine pronouns.
  • Encourage feedback, and create an environment when people feel comfortable expressing their concerns – We are all guilty of relying on stereotypes from time to time. Accept that committing microaggressions does not make you a bad person – and do be receptive to feedback you receive.

In Summary:

Even seemingly insignificant biased comments or actions can have larger implications and should be acknowledged. Challenge yourself to call them out when possible, and take others seriously when they do the same.