Diversity & Inclusion

Nobody’s perfect: Unconscious bias at work

by Lisa ChapmanDiversity Insight unconscious bias 2
Royse Law Firm, PC

Whether you work in an office or not, you should care about harassment in the workplace. It can be verbal or nonverbal, and the perpetrators often aren’t fully aware of the negative implications behind their words or actions. Whether we’re on the receiving end of the harassment or the ones making the comments, the way we conduct ourselves at work and in life has a direct impact on the reputation of our company and the individuals who comprise it.

Why employers should care

We’d all like to think we don’t have biases or prejudice toward people before we meet them. Let’s get one thing straight, though: Nobody is perfect. It’s uncomfortable to talk about the issues surrounding our biases. There is no graceful way to acknowledge possible bullying and harassment, especially in the workplace. People worry they will be fired or unfairly treated if they complain about the company culture, even if it’s leading to issues involving harassment.

So, what happens when your employees are complacent bystanders in and outside of the workplace? Whether you’d like to admit it or not, your company culture is directly affected. If people don’t respect one another at work, how do you expect them to conduct themselves while representing the company outside of the office?

Unconscious bias triggers microaggressions

People don’t usually intend to treat groups of people from different backgrounds in mean or inappropriate ways. When they do, it’s typically because of their unconscious (or implicit) biases. Unconscious biases tap into the social stigmas ingrained in our brains, of which we are completely unaware. When we rely on our unconscious biases, we risk acting on them. The resulting actions are called “microaggressions,” or small, often accidental insults aimed toward members of minority groups.

To better understand how to resolve these social inequalities, let’s examine how unconscious biases lead to microaggressions in everyday life. Suppose you are a woman working at a company where a man has recently stepped down from a higher position. Women, as we know, are much less likely than men to ask for a raise or a promotion. On this particular day, however, you’re feeling inspired. So you approach your boss and ask to be considered for this position. When you go to ask, your boss smiles and says you’re much better at what you’re doing now and that you aren’t the best “fit” for the position.

Your boss unconsciously may be associating the job with a male figure because a man has previously held it. Your boss might even be a woman—unconscious bias implies an affinity toward, rather than an aversion against, a particular group of people. In other words, your boss was expecting a man so her unconscious bias led her to believe that a man should be hired for the job. It doesn’t mean your boss is a sexist or doesn’t see your worth—it’s just that the unconscious biases are clouding her judgment. The bias leads to a microaggression, thus stunting your career growth.

This is extremely harmful because your boss is unintentionally discriminating against women. If company leaders were to become more aware of unconscious biases by doing something as simple as taking an online implicit-bias test, they might forgo their previous assumptions and begin to consider employees based on qualification rather than appearance.

Bottom line for employers

Workplace discrimination is harmful because it leads to preferential treatment on the basis on gender, race, ethnic origin, and other uncontrollable characteristics. Failing to work to uncover our biases further perpetuates the social injustices prevalent in our society. When people ignore their unconscious biases, they risk acting on them subconsciously. By acting on them and committing microaggressions, you run the risk of violating federal and state discrimination laws by causing a disparate impact on classes of employees. Title VII violations do not have to be purposefully discriminatory. No matter the intent, you are violating the rights and sanctity of the individuals around you.

We should all become aware of our unconscious biases. We have the unique human opportunity to judge the situations we are in and react positively. If we fail to determine our unconscious biases, we are effectively causing harm to society. And if we recognize those biases but fail to change our behavior, we are living in quiet complacence. Knowledge is power, but it’s baseless without taking steps to improve the situation.

Lisa Chapman, an attorney at Royse Law Firm, PC in Menlo Park, will be speaking on “Unconscious Bias, Micro-Aggressions & Bullying” at the 2017 California Employment Law Update in Costa Mesa on October 13. She specializes in labor and employment law as well as litigation. You can reach her at lchapman@rroyselaw.com or 650-813-9700.



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