Employer Branding

Prevalent Yet Subtle Workplace Bias Erodes Productivity and Engagement

A new study has found that more than a quarter (27 percent) of those who experience discrimination at work report the bias to be common, impactful and beyond their ability to manage. The result of this triple threat of factors leads to frustration, stress, depression and helplessness on the job.

To measure the impact of workplace bias, David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts, and Judith Honesty, CEO of Honesty Consulting, asked 500 victims of discrimination to share their stories.

Each subject experienced incidents in the workplace which resulted in them feeling unwelcome, excluded, discounted, or disadvantaged because of who they are—their race, age, gender, national origin, religion, physical or mental disability, medical condition, pregnancy, marital status or sexual orientation.

By analyzing the stories, Maxfield and Honesty found that bias in the workplace is pervasive, permanent and unmanageable for victims. Specifically:

  • Pervasive: 49 percent of victims said the discrimination happens regularly in their workplace.
  • Permanent: 66 percent of victims said it has a large impact on their engagement, morale, motivation, commitment and desire to advance in the organization.
  • Unmanageable: 60 percent of victims said they did not feel they could master incidents of bias in the moment or prevent them from recurring in the future.

Maxfield and Honesty rated the stories based on Martin Seligman’s work on Learned Helplessness to measure the impact of discrimination on employee behavior. Seligman has found that the way people perceive an event determines the impact it has on their behavior. Events that are seen as permanent, pervasive, and beyond their control lead to frustration, stress, depression and helplessness.

Additionally, they found seven themes in the stories indicating the most prevalent types of workplace discrimination.

  1. Don’t Be Yourself. Employees are warned to avoid showing who they really are—i.e. to avoid talking about her “wife”, to dress in a more “feminine” way etc.
  2. You’re Not Credible. Employees are interrupted and discounted, excluded from meetings, passed up for high-visibility assignments or promotions, etc. Others hint the perceived lack of credibility is the result of race, sex, age etc.
  3. Oops, Just Kidding. A manager or co-worker makes a blatant racist, sexist, intolerant comment to a colleague and then tries to walk it back.
  4. Anything Goes After Hours. A manager or co-worker makes blatantly racist, sexist, or intolerant comments/jokes about others—customers, people in the news, etc. They feel it’s okay because they’re not at work or because they aren’t talking about an employee.
  5. You’re Unwelcome. Employees are excluded from conversations at both work and social gatherings. Co-workers or managers “forget” to invite them to meetings or give them information they need to do their job. Others fail to socialize with them or change the subject or stop socializing when they join.
  6. Gotcha. A manager or co-worker seeks to tear down their colleague or believes others, even when they aren’t credible; dishes out unequal punishments; finds faults to the extent of distorting the truth.
  7. Unconscious Bias: Women, minority, or older employees are told they “lack executive presence,” “don’t fit our culture,” “are too aggressive” even though their performance would be seen as exemplary in a white, male or younger employee.

Honesty says these 7 themes reveal a trend of subtle—yet harmful—workplace discrimination. While overt bias is likely not tolerated, under-the-radar forms of discrimination are pervasive and severe across corporate America. She said:

“We catalogued hundreds of moments where victims were left questioning others’ intentions and their own perceptions. The inner litany sounds a bit like, ‘I’m upset, but I don’t know if I should be, or if I have a right to be.’ At best, this shadowy bias is exhausting. At worst it’s soul-destroying to both the individual and the organization.”

Maxfield says it’s important leaders demonstrate and teach skills for confronting bias in a way that uncovers what really just happened. He added:

“Our research shows people who initiate honest, frank and respectful dialogue build understanding and cultures of respect. These are the kinds of cultures that promote rather than erode performance and engagement.”

Maxfield and Honesty share five skills to confront and reduce subtle to overt forms of bias in the workplace:

  1. Use CPR: When confronting bias, should you talk about the Content (a one-time incident), the Pattern (a series of incidents), or the Relationship (the impact of a pattern on your ability to work productively with others)? Many stories described “micro-inequities”—small incidents that wouldn’t be worth addressing except that they are a part of a pervasive pattern. If you confront the one-time incident, you’re likely to be seen as over-reacting. But if you address the larger pattern or relationship concern, you can demonstrate that these micro-inequities add up to soul-crushing impacts.
  2. Start with Heart: Before you speak up, identify what you really want to happen. Is it enough for the bad behavior to stop? Or do you want an apology, punishment and reparations? Also consider that you’re likely going into the conversation with a lifetime of grievances. How responsible is the person in front of you for that history? Likely, he or she plays a smaller role than what you may be attributing to his or her actions.
  3. Master My Stories: Before speaking up, separate the stories you bring to the situation from the facts of the other person’s actions. Only then, can you master your own strong emotions.
  4. State My Path: Discover what really just happened—no apologies, no self-repression, no accusations and no indictments. Begin with the detailed facts, then tentatively suggest what the facts mean to you.
  5. Make it Safe: Is a person who exhibits unconscious bias automatically a bigot? If so, then we’re all bigots. It’s challenging to describe biased behavior without the other person feeling attacked.

More findings from the study can be found in this infographic.

Infographic courtesy of VitalSmarts.

By Guest

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