Racism.

That’s a charged word. Companies reprimand employees for blatant, careless comments about color, ethnicity, religion and gender. But most discrimination is far more subtle. It flies under the radar.

Here’s an example: Earlier in my career, I was preparing for a national championship in canoe marathon. I arrived at the office by 6 a.m. so I could put in a full day’s work before heading to canoe practice in the late afternoon. A sleek 18’6” racing boat sat atop my relatively new white van in the company parking lot. An executive phoned me one day and asked me to relocate the rig. “That needs to be out of sight,” he steamed. “A van is not a suitable vehicle for someone in your role, and having play toys on the top says we’re not serious about our work.”

The underlying message was, “You need to check this aspect of your life (athletics) at the door. It is not welcomed here.”

Daily, we engage in prejudiced thinking without even realizing it. Two recent posts illustrate this phenomenon: “Straight Talk on Workplace Prejudice” and “5 Uncomfortable Observations About Workforce Diversity.”

Discomfort with a co-worker often signals bias

Next time you find yourself cringing in a colleague’s presence, fill in one or more of these blanks.

  • I do not feel comfortable with this person because …
  • I am skeptical about this worker’s ability to do a good job because …
  • I would be hesitant to put this employee in front of a customer because …
  • I would prefer not to have this individual on my project team because …

Are your answers based on work performance you have observed? Or are you simply uncomfortable with a nonwork-related trait the co-worker exhibits? Wardrobe. A pierced tongue. Sexual orientation. Age. Mannerisms. A boat on top of a van.

Explore your bias and commit to resolving it

My third-grade son recently brought home an inspiring bookmark. A local nonprofit, Reading to End Racism, had presented at his school. With its permission, I am reprinting advice from its bookmark (Nos. 1 to 6), along with some additional suggestions (Nos. 7 and 8).

I challenge you to pick something from this list and do it in the next week.

  1. Eat lunch with someone new.
  2. Invite a colleague of a different background to help on your next project or to participate in a brainstorming session.
  3. Speak up or out when you hear jokes and slurs that put people down. Silence sends a message that you are in agreement.
  4. Read more. Find books that promote understanding of different demographic groups/cultures and that are written by authors of diverse backgrounds.
  5. Go to movies, concerts, museums and events where you will find out about diverse racial and cultural perspectives and realities.
  6. Make a point of seeking and considering viewpoints opposite your own. Find out the reasoning behind their thinking.
  7. Become aware of your own prejudices through journaling. Admitting and evaluating your discomfort can lead you to new insights and help you disarm prejudice.
  8. Ask a trusted colleague for feedback. Does he/she observe any bias in the way you act toward others? For example, do you leave certain employees out of the communication loop or automatically dismiss their input?

In my experience, many workplace diversity programs only scratch the surface. Because each of us harbors unique biases, based on upbringing, culture and schooling, one-size-fits-all corporate programs may not help you truly appreciate and respect diversity.

Each of us needs to do a frank self-assessment and come up with a personal action plan for becoming more sensitive. Your organizational success depends on embracing employee talent and suspending judgment of the “packaging.”

Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, unabashedly challenges the status quo. Read her posts at Lead Change Group, and check out a free, “straight talk” management assessment at ManagingPeopleBetter.com.

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5 Responses to “8 ways to help end workplace prejudice”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    #3 can be a little more mult-faceted than listed. Sometimes silence IS agreement, sometimes silence is choosing to not get into the fray, and sometimes…….silence is acknowledgment that everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

  2. Just Sayin' says:

    Not everything reflects prejudice. And prejudice against canoeists is hardly a widespread cultural problem even if it did show some kind of prejudice (you really did not make your case for that). I’m sure you have better examples.

  3. Experience says:

    First starting out in my career, I worked with an African American Woman. After 6 months, she filed a descrimination claim with eeoc and quit. I was accused of descrimination against her. The company ended paying out a few thousand $$$ through arbitration. I never got an explanation of the charges filed. Was it pay, was it me?
    After that experience, I'm on guard with African Americans in my work place. So is it predudice based on my experience?

  4. JCC says:

    Unchecked privilege results in prejudice.

    Think about that the next time someone levels a charge against you.

  5. Just Sayin' 2 says:

    How is wanting an employee to be presentable discrimination. If you work for someone you represent thier company. As far as descrimination, some people are overly sensative and insecure, which may cause them to misinterpret signs from bosses/co-workers. This makes it seem like every decision a boss gives is because of descrimination.
    A women from our company claimed age and sex descrimination when she wasnt the only women, and was the average age. It is abuse of our legal system.