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Study on Bias Reveals Several Types of Discrimination

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From intolerant jokes, to disparaging comments, to exclusion from meetings—workplace bias takes different forms, according to a study released March 21.

Judith Honesty, CEO of Honesty Consulting in Chicago, and David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts, a leadership training company in Salt Lake City, conducted the study of 500 people who said they had been discriminated against in the workplace.

Maxfield also is the co-author of Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change (McGraw-Hill Education, 2013) and the New York Times bestseller Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior (McGraw-Hill Education, 2013).

Each person they spoke with had experienced incidents at work that made him or her feel unwelcome, excluded, discounted or disadvantaged because of his or her race, age, gender, national origin, religion, physical or mental disability, medical condition, pregnancy, marital status or sexual orientation, according to Honesty and Maxfield.

Based on the stories they heard, they identified several ways in which people discriminate against others. Whether the discrimination was subtle or overt, those who experienced it heard these messages:

  • "Don't be yourself." Employees are discouraged from revealing their true selves. A gay married woman, for example, knows not to talk about her wife or is expected to dress in a more feminine style at work, according to one example from Honesty and Maxfield.
  • "You're not considered credible." Employees are interrupted, discounted, excluded or passed over for high-profile assignments or promotions. There may be a hint that the perceived lack of credibility is because of the person's race, sex, age or other factors. 
  • "Just kidding." A manager or co-worker makes biased comments to a colleague and tries to pass them off as a joke.
  • "Anything goes after hours." Managers or co-workers make racist, sexist or intolerant comments or jokes about others, such as customers or people in the news. They think this is all right because they aren't talking about someone in their workplace.
  • "You're unwelcome." An employee is excluded form conversations at work and from social gatherings; co-workers or managers don't invite the person to meetings, or they withhold information the person needs to do his or her job. 
  • "Gotcha." A manager or co-worker seeks to tear down a colleague or believes those who disparage the co-worker even when the disparagers lack credibility. The manager may be unduly harsh with the worker but easy on others. Or, the manager may find fault to the extent of distorting the truth.
  • Unconscious bias. Women, older employees and minorities are told they "lack executive presence," "don't fit the culture" or are "too aggressive"—although their performance might be viewed as exemplary in a white, male or younger employee. 

Most people have some type of hidden bias, according to the NeuroLeadership Institute. Such biases often surface in the workplace when people are drawn to others who share the same hobbies or pursuits, creating an affinity bias that can affect resume-screening and career advancement. 

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Equal Employment Opportunity]

Whatever shape bias takes, it erodes productivity and engagement. Among Honesty and Maxfield's findings, 66 percent of the people they spoke with said the biased treatment they experienced had a large impact on their morale, motivation, commitment, and desire to advance in the organization.

"We catalogued hundreds of moments when victims were left questioning others' intentions and their own perceptions," Honesty said in a news release. "At best, this shadowy bias is exhausting. At worst, it's soul-destroying to both the individual and the organization."

Bias may result in legal action. In 2016, a court found that indirect evidence of bias was enough to send a sex discrimination claim to trial, SHRM Online reported in March 2016.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, with the help of employer and employee representatives, released a report on harassment in June 2016. During the 2017 Society for Human Resource Management Employment Law & Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., EEOC commissioner Chai Feldblum urged employers to use the four checklists in the report. Those checklists cover:

  1. Accountability for mid-level managers and front-line supervisors to prevent and/or respond to workplace harassment.
  2. Regular training for mid-level managers and front-line supervisors.
  3. Regular training for all employees so they can recognize prohibited forms of conduct and know how to use the reporting system. 
Maxfield said it's important that leaders demonstrate and teach skills for confronting bias. Sixty percent of the victims in the report said they did not think they could prevent the biased treatment from recurring or know how to handle it when it did occur. Many of the stories that he and Honesty uncovered were seemingly small incidents that a manager or victim might not have considered addressing had they not been part of a pervasive pattern.

Respectful conversations that address bias, Maxfield said, rely on:

  • Being aware of the conversation's intent. Is it to address a one-time incident? A pattern of bias? How that pattern affects the victim's ability to work productively with others? 
  • Identifying the conversation's desired outcome. Is it to stop the behavior, to get an apology, or to seek punishment and reparation for the behavior?
  • Conducting the conversation so all parties feel safe. It can be challenging to discuss biased behavior without that person feeling attacked.
  • Laying out detailed facts, without making accusations or indictments. 
"Our research shows people who initiate honest, frank and respectful dialogue build understanding and cultures of respect," Maxfield said in a news release. "These are the kinds of cultures that promote rather than erode performance and engagement."

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