discriminate in the workplaceWho, me? Discriminate? Of course not.

I treat all my colleagues and team equally.

I am fair in all things.

I welcome people of all backgrounds and cultures at all times.

That is indeed the ideal. But without being aware of it, you may be carrying unconscious bias.

In fact you are carrying unconscious bias, because when we start to look into it, like it or not, it appears that we all do.

Sometimes it’s a good thing. Unconscious bias stops you walking down a dark alleyway at night in a dodgy part of the city. It stops you eating food from a street vendor whose utensils are less than clean. Whatever preconceived notions you have about those situations can actually keep you safe.

But it can also make you relate to someone using hundreds of almost imperceptible gestures and forms of words which let them know, every day, that you are uncomfortable with what you perceive to be their difference. The cumulative effect can seriously impact on their performance.

There is a Harvard study underway with a website where you can test your unconscious bias, details at the end of this article. You could really surprise yourself by trying it. The place where you think you are completely secure could be the very place you have subconscious bias issues.

So you think you are completely OK with LGBT colleagues, or non nationals, or people of a different colour or ability? Or that you are fully supportive of gender diversity?

The facts are that in any workplace, team, or department there is a tendency towards an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group. (Yes, that’s right, we never really moved on from school!) And it is the responsibility of all, but particularly the team leader, to break it down using an awareness of the unconscious biases that allow it happen in the first place.

Members of the ‘in’ group are respected, accepted, treated as individuals. People have a positive recall of their of their contribution. They experience trust and recognition of their worth, which gives them security and builds their self esteem.

The ‘out’ group is seen as homogenous, all of a kind, that lot over there. Less positive information is recalled about their contribution, or their offering. They experience distrust, unfamiliarity and even hostility, which makes them anxious and insecure.

I recently saw this played out by a team of actors in a Navigating Differences workshop organised by a financial institution. It was absolutely fascinating seeing on stage all the people we work with every day, compete with all their little and not so little biases.

There was the smug, self satisfied youngish male Manager (is that a bias of my own?) who said all the right things about accepting feedback, being open to challenge, wanting to grow etc. But then he displayed a frightening blindness and indifference to his Asian female colleague.

There was the female Director who was efficient, clever, and got things done, but who threw away her personal power at every opportunity with anxious glances, faces pulled and whispered asides to her female colleagues.

There was the male Director who asked all the boys at the end of the event to go for a drink ‘in the usual place’. The women didn’t know where the usual place was.

There was the very precise, driven, polite Director who could never be himself or be fully authentic, because he had not told his colleagues that he was gay.

The roles played out as described above starkly illustrated ‘in’ groups and ‘out’ groups, and led to lively discussion and eventual agreement that structured conversations around these issues have to be held in the workplace. As long as we are talking about something, we are learning.

One of the ways in which we can examine how we unintentionally discriminate is to look at the coded language in regular use in the workplace regarding different groupings. Coded language is words used almost exclusively for that grouping.

At the workshop, people said these words had been heard in relation to these groups.


White males             Arrogant, smug, self important, entitled

White female           Emotional, hysterical, hormonal, bitch

East Asian                 Timid, shy, quiet, serious, anti-social

South Asian               Subservient, too literal, technical, talkative

Black male                 Aggressive, in your face, angry, hostile

Black female             Pushy, demanding, insistent, argumentative

And as a sub-set of white male, Irish Male – laddish, laid-back, informal, casual, gregarious, drinker.

Why do we think these things about these groups? And how do we let that show or play out in our normal working week? And in what way is it impacting on people?

Day to day interactions can influence a career trajectory far more than anything that happens at a performance review or an interview. So we need to be very careful that we are not undermining people around us with unconscious bias.

If we acknowledge difference, we can capitalize on it, and use it as a force for good. There is no point in bringing together a diverse team for the breath of experience and the counterpoint they can contribute, and then trying to make out that we experience things in the same way.

We are not the same, we are different, with all kinds of different things to offer. Let’s try to be the kind of leaders who actively choose difference, and then celebrate it.

Log on to Project Implicit https://www.projectimplicit.net/index.html if you want to test yourself on unconscious bias!


About the Author: Orlaith Carmody is the Managing Director of Mediatraining.ie and the author of Perform As A Leader, available here http://performasaleader.com/product/perform-as-a-leader/.


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