Eliminating Expressions of Unexamined Bias:
It’s Everyone’s Responsibility

By Lauren Stiller Rikleen

Invariably, as a presentation on the challenges facing women in the workplace concludes, someone begins the question with an anecdote, and the anecdote is always a variation of the same theme:  a young professional is the recipient of an inappropriate remark or question, or is witness to an effort at humor that is rooted in stereotype against a particular ethnic, racial or other group. Some young women recalled awkward – and potentially illegal – questions about their dating life, or marital intentions, and even their plans for what they would do about work if they had children. Women of color reported being asked whether they would feel uncomfortable working with clients who were known to casually comment about people’s race. And others repeated bad jokes, grounded in racial or ethnic stereotypes.

At the conclusion of the unfortunate anecdote, the question is posed:  How should I have handled this situation?   Should I have openly confronted the person who was expressing a stereotype that was, at best, benign in its intent and, at worst, revealing of a deeper prejudice? The question is always asked tentatively, but with a frequency that cannot be ignored.  

The fact is, unexamined biases are at the heart of many inappropriate statements made in today’s workplace. Years of litigation and the promulgation of numerous laws have suppressed much of the overtly sexist or racist behaviors that once permeated many offices. Today’s employer must pay far greater attention to creating a workplace atmosphere that minimizes the risk of a worker alleging the existence of a hostile work environment or raising other potential legal claims.

It is, however, more difficult to eliminate the nuanced and subtle behaviors that demonstrate lingering stereotypes at work. Researchers studying this type of “unexamined” bias observe that we all fall prey to the reliance on stereotypes, although most of us fail to recognize this in our own behaviors and actions. But the expression of such bias is as hurtful as the expression of any stated prejudice. Left ignored, it can create a toxic workplace environment.

These behaviors can manifest themselves in a number of ways. Sometimes it is the ill-conceived effort at humor whose punch line is based on a commonly held stereotype. On other occasions, it is in a management decision, for example, the assignment of an important matter, where someone is excluded from a career-enhancing opportunity based on a misperception. A frequent example is declining to assign a matter involving travel to a new mother, without first giving her the opportunity to express whether she would welcome the assignment. Another common example is where a person of color is excluded from an opportunity because it is assumed that she will feel uncomfortable working with a client or customer who frequently makes inappropriate comments based on race or gender. And sometimes the exclusion is grounded in an unstated concern that the client or customer may not want to work with someone who is “different.”

So how should an individual respond to behaviors in the workplace that demonstrate this type of unexamined bias? And is the response different whether one is the direct recipient of the behavior or is observing its impact on someone else?

The following are five ways you can do your part to create an environment that thwarts the open expression of unexamined biases.

  1. Don’t laugh at the jokes. People tell jokes as a way of seeking approval. If jokes that express ethnic, racist, or other hurtful stereotypes are met with a blank stare instead of laughter, then an incentive has been created to find a new source of jokes.

  2. Better yet, respond negatively to the ill-conceived remark or attempt at humor. The next time someone articulates a statement or makes a joke that relies on stereotyped images for its punch line, express your discomfort. No drama is necessary. Simply state that such comments or humor makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps even add that it is an insult to your friends in the group that is the butt of the alleged joke.

  3. Have a private conversation with the offender. If someone is publicly upbraided for his remarks, it may only lead to a defensive reaction without any recognition that the offensive behavior should be modified. A quiet conversation, however, where you can seriously discuss the inappropriate remarks and explain why they are hurtful creates an atmosphere more conducive to self-reflection.

  4. There’s safety in numbers. Sometimes the private conversation will not work. It can be easy for someone to avoid responsibility for bad behavior by blaming the messenger for overreacting. At that point, calling in reinforcements may be the needed strategy to make clear that the offender’s remarks lack the positive audience he seeks.

  5. If all else fails, elevate the issue. Managers who have ultimate responsibility for their workplace have an obligation to be told when someone in their employ poses what is ultimately a liability risk. By involving appropriate personnel, you are placing the responsibility for change where it belongs, and creating a healthier work environment in the process.

If we have a collective responsibility to respond to bias, we also have a duty to do so in a way that offers the best possibility of changing future behavior. The goal, therefore, is to craft a response that is appropriate to the situation and maximizes any potential “teachable moment” that could emerge from the incident.

The reality is that expressions of unexamined biases must be brought to light in order to change behavior. This means we all have a responsibility to address such observed biases, whether we are the recipient or a bystander. If we simply allow statements grounded in stereotypes to be made, we convey that we tacitly approve the behavior. And if we appear to approve or otherwise not object to the perpetuation of stereotypes in the workplace, we guarantee that nothing will change. For a workplace to be truly diverse, unexamined bias must be recognized and then consciously eliminated.

Read other articles and learn more about Lauren Stiller Rikleen.

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