Photo by Radachynskyi Serhii/shutterstock.com
The premise of this article: Bias is a natural, everyday, useful part of life, but it is the very utility and neutrality of bias that lead to its danger. Unnoticed in its quiet service, bias can evolve into prejudice and discrimination, damaging people and impairing our ability to make the right decisions for our company.
There are a few prominent employment prejudices. In no particular order: skin color, sex, age, sexual orientation and identity, accent and national/cultural origin. We are aware of these prejudices because they are well known and covered by the media with some frequency — an unfortunate consequence of them being experienced with appalling frequency.
We go about our lives happily indifferent to these common differences among us. We are without prejudice…aren’t we?
We can be without prejudice but none of us is without bias – nor should we be. Bias is a necessary part of our existence. We like one color over another, one food over another. We have preferred genres in film and TV, preferred hobbies and vacations. Without these preferences, these biases, we’d be incapacitated by the effort of making hundreds of largely immaterial decisions per day.
The danger arises when our biases, correctly used with thoughtless abandon to choose our lunch beverage, get carried over to the interview room and other places where we change the direction of peoples’ lives.
If we have not intentionally looked for our biases we have probably not identified them. We can be truly indifferent to skin color, sex, age, sexual orientation and identity, and national/cultural origin and still be leaving a trail of prejudicial damage in our wake.
Before we can actually be without bias we must first know what our biases are.
I lived in a student co-op while at university and served on the co-op Board of Directors. The board had to choose a new general manager. There were several good candidates. Our president’s choice was the maintenance manager, and he was adamant.
Dan from maintenance? Slightly unkempt, shirt untucked, somewhat blustery Dan? General manager? Really?
The president was 30-something and the rest of us on the board were in our early 20s and malleable. The president remained firm: Dan was the best choice. We acceded.
I graduated and my first permanent employment was administrative assistant of the co-op where my contact with Dan went from an hour every two weeks to all day, five days a week. Here I learned how sneaky bias can be, how well it can hide, and how fiercely it can act while remaining completely invisible.
Maintenance Dan, the guy one thought of when the toilet was plugged or someone dumped garbage in the laneway, Dan to whom I would not have given a chance based on my own judgment, was one of my best managers.
Dan knew respect. He made everyone feel good about themselves. Dan put on no airs, had no ego that I could detect. Dan wrote his letters by hand, tossed them on my desk and said, “Fix it,” knowing that his writing ability was only passable, and I could make his thoughts take flight. He knew his strengths and weaknesses and cared only to find, use and praise the skills of people with strengths he did not possess.
Dan was the kind of manager who never raised his voice. In the years I worked for Dan I did one thing wrong. He called me in and explained the error. Very gently. No more was needed. I would rather fall on my sword than disappoint Dan in the smallest way.
Dan’s biggest impression on me was personal, focused around his management style. But it must be noted that he was also an excellent business strategist and corporate leader.
Without saying anything, Dan taught me about my own bias and its capacity to evoke prejudice. He taught me how it can be right there, keeping someone from getting the opportunity they deserve, and still be entirely invisible. He taught me I have to watch for it always.
That “Comfortable Feeling”? Often Bias At Work
When we choose the people with whom we have work relationships, whether it’s who we go to lunch with, who we ask to join a staff-level team of peers, or as a manager hiring subordinates, there are people with whom we feel comfortable and there are people with whom we do not.
Have we asked ourselves WHY we feel those things? Are they arising from objective and legitimate measures, or if we examine those feelings, is it something else? Something that’s not so legitimate?
Dan taught me that it’s not enough to go with our gut and decide who’s going to win and who’s going to lose because we feel something. We have to examine what we feel and ask ourselves why. It has to be an intentional, regular habit. If it’s not, our subconscious supplies a ready answer for why we have a feeling that glosses over our bias and makes it invisible. Of course Dan couldn’t be our general manager. He’s unkempt, untucked Dan! In charge of toilets! Obviously!
I saw an aspect of a person and had a feeling about it. Having a feeling is okay, even if it is unkind. What was prejudiced and wrong was allowing that feeling to define Dan’s whole existence and potential for me, allowing it to limit him to bathrooms and garbage bins.
I was biased without having a clue because I didn’t think to ask myself why I felt what I felt and it was far from apparent that that provided room for me to act with prejudice – to discriminate – against a white, straight, Christian male, someone who we often assume to be risk-free from prejudice.
I ask myself now. So should we all. If we’re not asking, we are by definition acting prejudicially against others, based on our feelings of comfort and discomfort, and the often unapparent places from which they arise.
 My first draft of this article used the word “prejudice” exclusively and “bias” never. Two wise colleagues suggested I should understand the difference and differentiate between them, and they were correct. My portrayal of bias was informed by several sources and owes the most to these two: