Confronting Your Preconceptions About Co-Workers

    Having stereotypes is normal, speaker says; letting them guide your behavior shouldn’t be

By Dana Wilkie October 27, 2015
Have you ever spoken slowly around a co-worker with a foreign accent? Spoken more loudly than normal? Simplified your vocabulary because you assumed that the accent made your colleague somehow less intelligent, quick or capable than you?

Michael Miller has seen that happen.

“We come to work with impressions about people—the impression we have is sometimes based on our experiences, our raising, our communities,” said Miller, a motivational speaker with Massachusetts-based FUN Enterprises, Inc. who will address unconscious bias in the workplace at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2015 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition in Boston. “The reaction we have may be out of our control. When it becomes a problem, though, is when we act on a preconception or misconception that reflects ignorance, because it can result in mistreatment—we hurt another person.”

Miller’s Oct. 28 conference session, titled “Confronting Your Own Thoughts: Removing the Blocks to Inclusion,” will use small group discussions to explore ways to prevent stereotypes from affecting how people treat others at work.

Stereotypes Stifle

Once, while working at a large consulting company, Miller heard a manager refer to a nurse practitioner as a good hire because she'd be a “worker bee” as “all good nurses are.”

That’s the sort of labeling—assuming that all nurses should be a certain “type” of worker—that marginalizes others, Miller said.

“It's a stereotype and it fails to acknowledge the training and expertise her education and credentials [as a nurse practitioner] required,” he said, noting that the training and education for nurses and nurse practitioners is different. “It limits her to being only a good ‘worker’—implying she's not like others who are better ‘thinkers.’ ”

“Don't pretend that you don't have a preconception or misconception based upon an identifying characteristic,” Miller said. “Acknowledge it. Become aware that it might be incorrect or ignorant and then make sure your behavior honors and respects others. Consciousness is key. As we acknowledge our misconceptions and make sure that our behavior includes and values others, that's when the perceptions can change for real, and not in a shallow or ‘politically correct’ way.”

Moving Beyond Labels

At the conference session, Miller will discuss five ways employees can prevent their unconscious biases from affecting their relationships with co-workers:

Ask. “One way you can be inclusive with others is to ask questions” of them, Miller said. “This includes them in the conversation.”

Understand. Asking questions of others allows you to recognize that “even though they may look like you, their experiences may be vastly different from yours. Use what you know to understand each person individually, knowing that they’ve gotten where they are by different paths.”

Give. “Give each of your staff members your individual attention whenever possible. Give them examples of what creates success in the organization.”

Invite. Show employees how they “can be part of a team in the organization—in ways that might challenge, inspire, improve or nurture them. These invitations also help you focus on who’s being included and who isn’t.”

Be energetic. “To personalize the work experience for the staff, to track inclusion and to follow up with those who haven't been included takes great energy, motivation and passion.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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