Many organizations train employees and supervisors in harassment and discrimination prevention. In fact, many employers even train their workforces in the benefits of diversity. Why, then, is there such an exorbitant number of discrimination claims and enforcements? Experts believe that hidden biases – biases that people don’t even know they hold – affect their personal and professional preferences.
These unconscious choices are subtle instances where we misrecognize and misinterpret behaviors.
In meetings, for example, it can manifest in actions such as men interrupting more, or men talking exclusively to each other ignoring the woman with more expertise in the room. It could be a comment, that when made by a woman is discounted, but coming from a male is acknowledged.
Two people—one a neatly dressed young white man, the other a middle-aged black woman who is slightly overweight—apply for a job with your organization. They seem equally qualified, but the hiring manager has an inexplicable and slightly negative reaction to the woman. “I just can’t put my finger on it,” he tells you, “but I don’t think she’ll be a good fit.” The hiring manager didn’t think she was judging.
Two equally educated friends were talking in the lunchroom—one white, the other Hispanic. The white friend said, “When I went to the library yesterday half the people there were members of your class … actually, it was more than half because half the people were Hispanic.” The comment wasn’t meant to be racist, and the pre-judged didn’t even seem to notice.
At the lunch counter, a man jokingly tried to pay less than the full amount expected. In jest, the server said, “What are you, a Jew?” Undoubtedly, the server would strongly deny being anti-Semitic.
In Managing Your Mind, Dr. Gillian Butler explains that your mind is wired to judge, form opinions, assess a stimulus as positive or negative, and much more. This is a necessary mental process that helps you function in life. The problem sometimes lies in forming an opinion or judgment based on little evidence. And why is it a problem? Because subtle prejudices may influence your behavior.
Such unconscious choices can be disastrous for the employees who suffer as a result of them; they also can damage businesses by leading managers and employees to make flawed business decisions in a number of areas, including hiring, promotion, training opportunities and project assignments.
It’s important to remember that these unconscious choices can come from anybody, and can be directed toward anyone. Unrestricted to gender, it can show up in race, ethnicity, education, sexual orientation, weight, economic class, physical ability, religion, age, etc. Most times these inappropriate inadvertent behaviors, while obvious to the insulted, are completely unintentional.
Over time, these little untalked about incidences build up. People are afraid to broach the subject for fear of being shut down, overlooked for a promotion, or simply because they don’t know how to speak up. The result is ongoing exclusion, frustration, and sometimes termination of top talent.
Following are a few tips for to help influence sensitivity and reduce stress.
Silence isn’t golden, it’s agreement. Cultural norms are maintained when everyone is empowered to hold anyone accountable – from the line worker to the CEO. When you see incongruent behavior be brave and speak up with confidence. To remain silent is to concede to it.
Assume no ill intent. “Biases don’t necessarily stem from evil in the hearts of men and women,” says Bob Dattner, a psychologist and principal with Dattner Consulting, a New York organizational effectiveness and human resource consulting firm, and a professor at New York University.
Pay attention to the pattern, not the incident. Most of these sensitive issues involve patterns of problems that build up over time. Emotionally charged people often overreact to an incident, when it’s the repeated pattern that makes the matter so troubling.
Communicate the facts, not the conclusions. When emotions are heated up, people tend to open with their own twisted truth or distorted reality and misconstrued assumptions. Instead, begin with your perception of the facts – those verifiable behaviors you see and hear.
Exchange ideas. Open the door for discussion – two way communication. Reserve the right to be wrong, and show genuine interest in hearing the other party’s perspective. Ask questions. Express what you really want. And, be open to the other person’s ideas.
The ability to understand, identify and discuss unconscious choices in a diverse world is becoming increasingly important. Organizations that understand hidden biases and work to overcome them will have a competitive advantage in this ever increasing global economy. They will find and retain top talent, have fewer lawsuits filed against them, and make better decisions. As a result, they will be more profitable. And, isn’t that why the business exists – to be productive and profitable?
- 0206 HR Magazine, Detecting Hidden Biases, By Pamela Babcock 2/1/2006
- Managing Your Mindby Gillian Butler, PhD and Tony Hope, MD. Oxford University Press, 1995