Beware The Subtle

Subtlety is no stranger to discrimination.  According to Harvard Business Review, subtle discrimination is the most destructive kind of discrimination.  More and more, employers (and others) are calling out subtle discrimination. This is a good thing.  Here are some examples of subtle discrimination or unconscious bias at play in the workplace:

  • Asking suspicious questions in an interview. Yes, you want to know if a candidate will be committed to our organization, but asking only females who have or could have children about their level of commitment or willingness to work some overtime could be a sign of discrimination.  Asking tall, black candidates if they love basketball does the same.
  • An all-male management team (otherwise known as the glass ceiling). If you have females working in your workplace but none of them are in management, why is that?  Is it because your industry doesn’t have many females in it (i.e. construction) or could bias be the root cause?  The same could be said for a lack of diversity at the top.
  • Assumptions that demonstrate discrimination. We’ve all the comments: all black people know each other and love hip hop or all individuals in wheelchairs want to walk someday.  We’ve also heard about the assumptions that fathers won’t want to take parental leave or pregnant women won’t return to the workplace.  The comments are sometimes well intentioned, but they’re still very much based on stereotypes and therefore, discriminatory.
  • Handling job assignments. Only women are assigned to the cosmetic account.  Only Asians handle the technical aspects of a project.  Only men handle jobs in the “rough neighborhood.”

There is no shortage of examples of subtle and/or unconscious bias at play in the workplace and in the world at large.  Our job is to do the following:

  1. Know our biases. We’ve all got ’em.  Don’t be embarrassed that you might.  Knowing our biases means we can work against them and question our own action.  Take the Project Implicit test from Harvard University.  Read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.
  1. Recognize when someone else’s bias might be at play. When a manager doesn’t want to hire a blind candidate because “he might not fit in,”  ask more questions about what she means.  Drill down when you hear comments you don’t want to see in a complaint or in the news.
  1. Train. Talk about this with managers and employees.  I know I harp on this, but it is essential and much more cost-effective than a lawsuit.  Consider it insurance.
  1. When bias rears its head, do something. Really, do something.  Not doing something could put your organization at considerable risk.

Subtle discrimination seems to be everywhere.  And, this has got to change especially in our workplaces.  When I was 15, I got to be a part of a Close Up Foundation trip to Washington, D.C. where I got to meet my Minnesota Congressional representatives.  One of the most memorable parts of the trip (there were many), was meeting California U.S. Representative Maxine Waters.  I wasn’t supposed to meet her, but she was on the Capitol steps, and I embarrassingly rushed to meet her.  Twenty-plus years later, I still admire her and marvel at the subtle discriminatory crap she and many others have to put up with.  Don’t let this stuff pervade your workplace.  Please.

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