5 Hidden Workplace Biases Beyond Race and Gender
Are you a victim of a different kind of workplace bias?
Posted July 13, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training helps build awareness of discriminatory workplace practices, including subtle forms of bias.
- Many forms of perceptional bias are just as harmful as those against someone's skin color or gender.
- Perceptional bias against an employee can include assumptions of competence based on things like their age or experience level.
There is much discussion in the media and the workplace about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). It describes a collection of sought-after behaviors that provide for fairness in our hiring processes, supervision, and promotion of employees. It seeks to provide equal opportunities and support for employees in protected classes. Each of us is in at least one: age (over 40), race, country of origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, veterans’ status, religious or political beliefs, disabilities, health conditions, and pregnancy. That’s just a few.
DEI training programs seek to build awareness about past discriminatory practices, level the playing field of employment and promotion, and increase the creativity, problem-solving, and success of the organization by bringing in different people who offer different viewpoints.
Part of the DEI training discussion includes the realities of our biases and the assumptions we make about each other. Those are often based on sweeping generalizations or a negative encounter with someone who certainly does not represent the larger population of that particular group.
These biases often come from our environment, our exposure to what we learn to think about people different from us by our parents, family, friends, school interactions, or workplaces. They are often defined as confirmation biases, where our negative encounters with people in any of the protected classes lead us to generalize and thereby confirm, “that’s how those people are.”
We all have our biases and part of DEI awareness-building is to change our thinking about how we perceive others. This takes effort, but the resulting changes in our perceptions can lead us to a better understanding, fairer treatment, patience, empathy, and acceptance.
We know that biases exist in our personal and professional lives. It has been illegal for many decades for companies to use biases to discriminate against people during hiring, and how they are supervised or promoted. It’s unethical and can subject an organization to a civil suit.
The problem with bias is that it can be subtle. When it’s about skin color or gender, it’s obviously wrong; when it’s about bias connected to perceptions of performance, it can be as harmful but less obvious. Consider if you have seen, experienced, or, worse, used any of these forms of perceptional bias:
Someone with age bias may think, "This employee is too old or too young to do this new type of work, figure out this complex technical equipment, or process this type of information." They assume the employee is too old to learn new things, too young to know how to operate the way the rest of the team does, or to figure it out. They consider this to be a permanent condition and that the employee won’t be able to learn.
This bias involves beliefs like, "This employee lacks the life or work experience to do what we are asking. They haven’t done this job or this type of work and don’t have the technical expertise, know-how, or 'time in grade.'" The assumption is because the employee hasn't done it before elsewhere, they won’t have the capacity to learn it here.
Those with appearance bias may think, "This employee doesn’t look like what we want our lawyers, bankers, accountants, salespeople, retail counter staff, front-of-house restaurant staff, trainers, security guards, or teachers to look like." This bias is often based on seeing people only by what they look like — especially if it involves how they express their creativity with hairstyles, tattoos, piercings, or clothing choices.
Motivation bias may prompt someone to think, "This employee doesn’t seem to care. They are kind of a loner, don’t jump into group projects, have a lousy attitude, seem to be standoffish, and don’t seem to want to take on new challenges." This assumption may not consider the employee is introverted, prefers to work alone, and just may be burned out because they have not been praised, supported, challenged, heard, or fairly managed.
What we predict about an employee’s success in the organization often occurs because we manage them to that expectation. “He’s probably not going to do very well” indeed comes true, as does, “She’s going to do very well here.” This bias comes because of a preconceived notion of predicted success. Some managers and supervisors can make this one come true by what they do or don’t do for their employees, right at the start.
Recognizing workplace biases is half the issue. The other half requires a commitment to see they are eliminated and that we hire, promote, and manage all employees fairly, ethically, and equally. The adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” means we should stop perception bias, set high performance and behavioral standards, provide opportunities for all employees to prove themselves, and coach them toward a level of success that satisfies them and the organization.