Bias in the Workplace

bi•as n an inclination of temperament or outlook; esp : a highly personal and unreasoned distortion of judgment  :  PREJUDICE

When it comes to bias, there really isn’t any good—it’s just the bad, the ugly, and the sometimes unacknowledged.  While we all probably know what bias is, we probably haven’t taken the time to really address its effects in the workplace and to look at ways to eliminate it. 

It’s important to note that biases can be positive (all librarians are well-read) or negative (all librarians lack fashion sense).  They are usually personal, developed through individual personal experiences or environments.  They’re also broad generalizations that often limit our experiences with individuals—and this is where they can lead to problems in the workplace.

Let’s try to illustrate bias in three categories—the bad, the ugly, and the unacknowledged.

The Bad:  “Bad” bias is what keeps people out of our personal circles and our institutions.  People in wheelchairs can’t work here.  People with accents shouldn’t interact with the public.  People with children can’t go out after work.  The “bad” bias limits people within our own assumptions.  It is often the type of bias that exists within our thoughts and that can even sometimes be uttered out loud.   

The Ugly:  The “ugly” is probably the easiest thing for us to identify.  The “ugly” are those statements that we know are wrong—the things many of us can’t even think, that don’t make sense.  People on welfare are lazy.  Women are bad at math.  White men don’t care about diversity.  The “ugly” are the ultimates, the generalizations that can’t be proven.  

The Unacknowledged:  The “unacknowledged” can seem positive.  Asians are good with technology.  They can be self-directed.  I’m Mexican and we’re always late.  They can masquerade as helpfulness.  People with accents need to be spoken to slowly and loudly.  They can seem logical.  African American librarians should work with African American communities.  The “unacknowledged” lead to all of the regular problems of bias—alienation, limited opportunities, and underestimation—and because they aren’t acknowledged and addressed they can perpetuate and spread within the workplace.

Difference vs. Bias

One of the challenges many workplaces struggle with is how to acknowledge difference.  Some workplaces want to act like there are no differences—that everyone is the same.  This is simply not true.  Differences are unavoidable in the workplace and they usually make workplaces stronger.  Acknowledging differences doesn’t lead to perpetuating bias.  Recognizing that Jennifer is black is fine—assuming characteristics about her because she is black is not.  Knowing that English is Alicia’s second language is fine—basing our assessment of her abilities on that is not.  Difference is an essential part of recognizing the individual, but when difference is used to generalize individuals based on what we think of that group, it becomes a bias. 

6 Steps to Changing Bias

  1. Reflect.  Spend time reflecting on the biases that you might have—almost everyone holds some form of bias.  Think through how those biases might have been formed and if there is any sound logic or reason to to them.
  2. Confront.  Consider why you might be holding onto a bias.  Is it because of fear—a preventative measure based on a bad experience?  Is it because of security--a crutch that helps you feel better about yourself?  Is it avoidance—a way to dodge difficult situations with groups you don’t understand or that make you uncomfortable?
  3. Engage.  One of the best ways to eliminate a bias is to prove it wrong through personal experience and engagement.  We’re all professionals and we can draw on each other to help improve our workplace.  Engage in a conversation with someone different from yourself.  Get to know them as an individual and take note of how they dispel the biases you might hold.
  4. Commit.  Commit to experiencing individuals, not groups.  Remember that everyone is a unique individual, not a stereotype of a group.  Make your relationships about the individual, not about group membership.
  5. Maintain.  Keep making connections with individuals—embrace each opportunity to meet and experience a new person and appreciate the differences and unique elements that make that person who they are.   
  6. Discuss.  Talk about your experiences with bias and with overcoming biases.  Encourage others to talk about their experiences.  Use discussion to help point out lingering blind spots and to continue building a bias-free workplace.

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