Eliminating Expressions of Unexamined Bias:
By Lauren Stiller Rikleen
Invariably, as a presentation on the challenges facing women in the
workplace concludes, someone begins the question with an anecdote,
and the anecdote is always a variation of the same theme: a young
professional is the recipient of an inappropriate remark or
question, or is witness to an effort at humor that is rooted in
stereotype against a particular ethnic, racial or other group. Some
young women recalled awkward – and potentially illegal – questions
about their dating life, or marital intentions, and even their plans
for what they would do about work if they had children. Women of
color reported being asked whether they would feel uncomfortable
working with clients who were known to casually comment about
people’s race. And others repeated bad jokes, grounded in racial or
conclusion of the unfortunate anecdote, the question is posed: How
should I have handled this situation? Should I have openly
confronted the person who was expressing a stereotype that was, at
best, benign in its intent and, at worst, revealing of a deeper
prejudice? The question is always asked tentatively, but with a
frequency that cannot be ignored.
is, unexamined biases are at the heart of many inappropriate
statements made in today’s workplace. Years of litigation and the
promulgation of numerous laws have suppressed much of the overtly
sexist or racist behaviors that once permeated many offices.
Today’s employer must pay far greater attention to creating a
workplace atmosphere that minimizes the risk of a worker alleging
the existence of a hostile work environment or raising other
potential legal claims.
however, more difficult to eliminate the nuanced and subtle
behaviors that demonstrate lingering stereotypes at work.
Researchers studying this type of “unexamined” bias observe that we
all fall prey to the reliance on stereotypes, although most of us
fail to recognize this in our own behaviors and actions. But the
expression of such bias is as hurtful as the expression of any
stated prejudice. Left ignored, it can create a toxic workplace
behaviors can manifest themselves in a number of ways. Sometimes it
is the ill-conceived effort at humor whose punch line is based on a
commonly held stereotype. On other occasions, it is in a management
decision, for example, the assignment of an important matter, where
someone is excluded from a career-enhancing opportunity based on a
misperception. A frequent example is declining to assign a matter
involving travel to a new mother, without first giving her the
opportunity to express whether she would welcome the assignment.
Another common example is where a person of color is excluded from
an opportunity because it is assumed that she will feel
uncomfortable working with a client or customer who frequently makes
inappropriate comments based on race or gender. And sometimes the
exclusion is grounded in an unstated concern that the client or
customer may not want to work with someone who is “different.”
should an individual respond to behaviors in the workplace that
demonstrate this type of unexamined bias? And is the response
different whether one is the direct recipient of the behavior or is
observing its impact on someone else?
following are five ways you can do your part to create an
environment that thwarts the open expression of unexamined biases.
Don’t laugh at the jokes. People tell jokes as a way of seeking
approval. If jokes that express ethnic, racist, or other
hurtful stereotypes are met with a blank stare instead of
laughter, then an incentive has been created to find a new
source of jokes.
Better yet, respond negatively to the ill-conceived remark or
attempt at humor. The next time someone articulates a statement
or makes a joke that relies on stereotyped images for its punch
line, express your discomfort. No drama is necessary. Simply
state that such comments or humor makes you uncomfortable.
Perhaps even add that it is an insult to your friends in the
group that is the butt of the alleged joke.
a private conversation with the offender. If someone is
publicly upbraided for his remarks, it may only lead to a
defensive reaction without any recognition that the offensive
behavior should be modified. A quiet conversation, however,
where you can seriously discuss the inappropriate remarks and
explain why they are hurtful creates an atmosphere more
conducive to self-reflection.
There’s safety in numbers. Sometimes the private conversation
will not work. It can be easy for someone to avoid
responsibility for bad behavior by blaming the messenger for
overreacting. At that point, calling in reinforcements may be
the needed strategy to make clear that the offender’s remarks
lack the positive audience he seeks.
all else fails, elevate the issue. Managers who have ultimate
responsibility for their workplace have an obligation to be told
when someone in their employ poses what is ultimately a
liability risk. By involving appropriate personnel, you are
placing the responsibility for change where it belongs, and
creating a healthier work environment in the process.
have a collective responsibility to respond to bias, we also have a
duty to do so in a way that offers the best possibility of changing
future behavior. The goal, therefore, is to craft a response that
is appropriate to the situation and maximizes any potential
“teachable moment” that could emerge from the incident.
reality is that expressions of unexamined biases must be brought to
light in order to change behavior. This means we all have a
responsibility to address such observed biases, whether we are the
recipient or a bystander. If we simply allow statements grounded in
stereotypes to be made, we convey that we tacitly approve the
behavior. And if we appear to approve or otherwise not object to
the perpetuation of stereotypes in the workplace, we guarantee that
nothing will change. For a workplace to be truly diverse,
unexamined bias must be recognized and then consciously eliminated.
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