The Emotional and Financial Cost of Workplace Bias

Key concepts in workplace discrimination – including ‘code switching’ – and how to address them.


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The dialogue about systemic racism has recently been amplified, which is certainly helpful, but much more work needs to be done to eradicate discrimination of all kinds. This is especially true in corporate America, which too often requires employees of color to conform to white norms of professionalism to succeed.

Related: 5 Tips for Dealing Better with Workplace Diversity

Code-Switching

Belonging is a fundamental human motivation, and essentially translates to having our authentic selves accepted. Black employees frequently find that their authentic selves are not accepted in predominately white work environments, and so feel pressured to what’s termed “code-switch” in order to endure and advance. That phrase, as defined in the 2019 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, “The Costs of Code-Switching,” means “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service and employment opportunities.” To survive in the workplace, many Black employees feel compelled to engage in that tactic, an effort that takes an enormous psychological toll. A study, also by HBR, noted that seeking to avoid stereotypes is hard work that can “deplete cognitive resources and hinder performance” and that “feigning commonality with coworkers also reduces authentic self-expression and contributes to burnout.” Those same researchers also noted that, “The study clearly shows that minorities who code-switch are likely to face a professional dilemma: Should they suppress their cultural identity for the sake of career success, or sacrifice potential career advancement for the sake of bringing their whole selves to work?” HBR also pointed out that this poses both career and psychological risks for individuals. It also damages organizations, “which may miss out on the distinct perspectives and contributions from racial minorities who are uncomfortable being themselves in the workplace.”

Related: How Should You Be Talking With Employees About Racism?

Common Workplace Racist Norms

Racist norms in the workplace are linked to biased standards of professionalism applied to appearance, language and emotions. A 2019 Stanford Social Innovation Review article noted that “professionalism has become coded language for White favoritism in workplace practices that more often than not privilege the values of White and Western employees and leave behind people of color.”

Appearance is one area where cultural differences are not typically embraced. Workplace norms related to hairstyle and dress, for example, create an environment of exclusion for racial and ethnic and minorities, sending a damaging message that their appearance does not fit into office culture. Additionally, language that does not conform to established standards of professionalism is often disregarded or devalued. The question becomes, what makes language okay or not okay? In the end, it is all about clarity and understanding; speaking in the same manner is not a requirement for understanding and is certainly not required in the construct of professionalism.

Emotions, and responses to them, represent another racist workplace norm that needs to be challenged. Anger is one example of an emotion Black employees suppress at work. When a white person hears a Black person’s anger, this triggers activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain that also gets activated by fear or rage), an effect that’s not at all useful in productive conversations. The result is escalated emotions, which does little to resolve situations. What’s much more effective is taking an inclusive approach in responding; if someone of another race shows anger or any other emotion, lean in, listen and empathize, rather than make assumptions based on cognitive biases.

Names can even trigger workplace bias. According to research conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a job applicant with a name that sounds like it might belong to an African American generally finds it harder to get a job. “Job applicants with white names needed to send about ten resumes to get one callback,” its research results read in part, while “those with African American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback.”

Name bias has also been in the news recently, including recent reports about Basecamp’s executive team keeping lists of “funny” names that were Asian and African in origin. When employees argued that this practice laid the foundation for racially-motivated violence, the company’s leadership team banned conversations around social issues and disbanded its internal diversity and inclusion initiatives. While they may have thought they would keep their culture safe by doing this, it was a decision that actually has the capacity to reduce psychological safety by asking people to suppress parts of themselves in case other employees lack the maturity to be respectful of differences of opinion.

Related: The Myriad Benefits of Diversity in the Workplace

Benefits of Inclusion, Acceptance and Diversity

Creating opportunities for diverse employees to feel included and accepted in the workplace brings different perspectives and expands creativity and problem solving, all of which fuel innovation. Better decision-making and enhanced employee engagement and retention are two other significant benefits of diversity, inclusion and acceptance. It’s important to reach out to others to not only understand differences but also to celebrate them — creating a tide that raises all ships.

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