How I Learned About My Own Bias the Hard Way

Preventing workplace discrimination is about more than saying the right things.

By Carolynne Marshall Jul 13, 2015
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HR Magazine July/August 2015 At one of the first interviews I ever conducted, I messed up in a major way. I was in my early 20s, two weeks into my first salaried job and recruiting for a physically demanding position. It was all fairly straightforward—until a woman who was five months pregnant turned up for an interview. In the interview, I said the wrong things and asked the wrong questions. That’s how I knew how pregnant she was at the time and that she was not interested in the desk job that I suggested for her.

Yeah, I know. Oops.

I thought I was being considerate. Neither she nor her husband saw it that way. Her husband called my boss and conveyed that his wife was told she was “too pregnant for the job.” While the interview didn’t exactly go that way, it may as well have. I’ll be upfront with you: I was definitely thinking that she was too pregnant for the job. It’s interesting, though, that it was my process rather than my thinking that was questioned.

That’s still the approach of many businesses when it comes to preventing discrimination. It’s all about keeping a poker face—a mask by the name of compliance. We’re asked not to say things that can be construed as discriminatory because the organization might get sued. Such is the effect of many well-intended pieces of fair-employment legislation. They evoke more fear than real change. HR’s challenge is to change that mindset.

A Missed Opportunity

The hard fact is this: The candidate would not have gotten that job on that day even if I had conducted a more appropriate interview. At that time, no one was willing to hire a pregnant woman for a physically demanding job. In my naiveté, I had exposed the truth.

I had totally overlooked the possibility of supporting her application. I am more ashamed of that than anything. I didn’t even see the opportunity to help her break down the barriers to entry. Why couldn’t she have the job? She may well have been an amazing hire who hung around far longer than the 20-something chap we ended up hiring instead. He lasted two months.

This was the conundrum of my early days in HR. You sign up to be a champion for progress, and you wind up becoming a custodian of compliance. How do you drive change with one eye on the manual and the other looking over your shoulder, jumping at shadows? The spirit of employment legislation often gets lost in its application.

Always Ask ‘Why Not?’

How much has changed in 20 years? Would the pregnant woman get the job today? We now know what not to say, but too often our behaviors still belie the truth behind our thinking.

In my career, I have been lucky enough to have worked with many organizations that are prepared to go far beyond the letter of the law to prevent discrimination. They understand that being a discrimination-free workplace is good for business.

Ultimately, the test of a truly nondiscriminatory employer is whether it acknowledges the attributes and protects the rights of all humans, period. It is not about saying the right things. And it is quite distinct from not saying the wrong thing. The latter is just a mask, and it’s time to drop the charade.

Doing the right thing is about whether or not a business is prepared to ask the question “Why not?” That requires decision-makers to question their personal prejudices and challenge them each and every day.

If they don’t, your company’s policy on anti-discrimination is not worth the paper it is printed on. It is merely rhetoric, and it’s the enemy of progress. Ask any employer who has traveled to the courts clutching only a wafer-thin policy in their hands. Policy is cold comfort for everyone concerned. Don’t tell me discrimination is in hand because of it. Wake up and smell the bias. It stinks.

Carolynne Marshall is a consultant and freelance writer with 20 years of experience as an HR manager in Sydney, Australia.

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