The Face of Discrimination May be Our Own

January 18, 2016

On Martin Luther King Day, it is appropriate to consider where discrimination and bias sit in our own lives.  More often than ever, I find the subjects of privilege, income inequality and social segregation entering into my conversations.  Thanks to the bravery, persistence and pluck of groups like Black Lives Matter, issues previously visible only to those negatively affected are showing up in unavoidable ways to everyone.  As a progressive of good will, I ask myself how I can make a difference in calling out institutional racism and discrimination.  I try to listen more than talk and to be mindful of seeing the world through the eyes of others.

What I think is most important for people of good will to understand is that we are quite likely to carry biases in spite of ourselves.  Implicit bias, by definition, is bias held by people who do not believe themselves to be biased.  If you have never taken the Implicit Associations Test or learned about the results (75 percent of its millions of takers show a preference for white people over brown skinned people) then I recommend you do so. A fabulous resource is the Book “Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People” by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, the originators of the IAT.

Two points that Banaji and Greenwald make are particularly important for us to remember on this day. First, that people who believe themselves to be free of prejudice are unlikely to discriminate by a hostile or harmful act towards someone who is different from them, and far more likely to discriminate by showing preference towards someone who is like them.  This is a simple premise with a diabolically powerful message; we can assure ourselves we are not discriminatory because we are doing nothing bad. The illusion of “only helping” is an extremely sustainable one if we don’t recognize the actual problem — our very human tendency to break the world into “us” and “them” and to favor “us” without thinking. Even our most altruistic acts may contribute to unintentionally feeding the advantage of the in group and sustaining social inequity.

The second point the authors make presents the only credible antidote I have found to scrutinizing  implicit bias. It comes from the work of  Psychologist Daniel Kahneman who posits two types of thinking; System 1 thinking, which is fast and helps us function on a day to day basis but can be inaccurate, and System 2 thinking which is more deliberate, concentrated and accurate.  System 1 thinking is at work when we get home from the grocery store and smack ourselves on the forehead because we have forgotten the very item we went to the store to purchase in the first place. System 2 is the brain working on a substantive problem, writing a blog post or analyzing data.  From this concept emerges the idea of a “conscious pause.”  Before making an important decision or judgement about someone, particularly if it has the possibility of benefiting someone, we need to move out of our System 1 brain and into System 2.  We need to ask ourselves if the volunteer commitment we are about to make or the donation check we are about to write or the job offer we are about to make arises out of in-group favoritism.  If we truly are committed to overriding our biases, our blind spots, our quick conclusion that we are doing the right thing must be subject to scrutiny.  Pause.  Think about it. Reflect.  Ask hard questions, or even better, ask someone else to challenge you.  In field studies of bias, self-scrutiny actually made a difference in whether race or gender were factors in critical decision making.

Daily we can find opportunities to be outraged by bigotry, discrimination and xenophobia.  Calling out these things when we see them in our public figures and institutions is essential.  Today, though, remember to look inside, and to remember the insidious nature of our own, inadvertent, but pernicious bias.




May 24, 2012


As promised, I have attached PDF copies of my Power Point slides from my break out sessions for your personal use.  As always, I ask that you be respectful of my intellectual property rights and use it only for internal or personal information sharing.  Any other use requires express permission.

There are fifteen questions pending from the break out sessions, and the answers will be posted on this blog next week.  Check back then, and thanks for your interest in these topics.


The Subtle Art of Investigative Interviewing

Subtle Discrimination and micro inequities

Of Bathrooms, Bias and Blind Spots

October 26, 2011

Of the twelve investigations I have done involving transgender individuals as either complainants or the subject of complaints, all have involved bathrooms. One would think that, given the confusion, bias, fear and anxiety the subject of gender identity and in particular, transgenderism seem to generate, that the issue would come down to more than facilities for personal hygiene. Nevertheless, the use or non-use of gendered bathrooms seems to be the place where a society’s equal treatment tends to be tested.

In May of this year, the Office of Personal Management (OPM) issued comprehensive guidance to federal employers regarding the employment of transgender individuals. With regards to the use of bathrooms, the guidance states,
“The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (DOL/OSHA) guidelines require agencies to make access to adequate sanitary facilities as free as possible for all employees in order to avoid serious health consequences. For a transitioning employee, this means that, once he or she has begun living and working full-time in the gender that reflects his or her gender identity, agencies should allow access to restrooms and (if provided to other employees) locker room facilities consistent with his or her gender identity. While a reasonable temporary compromise may be appropriate in some circumstances, transitioning employees should not be required to have undergone or to provide proof of any particular medical procedure (including gender reassignment surgery) in order to have access to facilities designated for use by a particular gender. Under no circumstances may an agency require an employee to use facilities that are unsanitary, potentially unsafe for the employee, or located at an unreasonable distance from the employee’s work station. ”

This policy, developed in conjunction with the LGTB community, focuses on the need for sensitivity to an employees gender identity, allowing for flexibility during transition, but not drawing the line at whether or not the individual has had sexual reassignment surgery. This is in contrast to current employment practice in the state of Minnesota, which is guided by a Minnesota Supreme Court, in Goins v. West Group, 635 N.W.2d 717 (Minn. 2001), ruled that transgendered individuals cannot claim discrimination if their employers require them to use a bathroom consistent with their biological gender, as opposed to their self image gender. It is important to note that in this case, the term “transgender” was defined as people who “seek to live as a gender other than the biological gender attributed to them at birth, but without surgery. (emphasis added.) While the intention of this post is to provide some practical perspective on this matter, I can’t help but provide my readers with a fairly comprehensive critique of Minnesota’s ruling (and a similar one in NY) ranging from potential conflict to the ADA to the court’s simply not understanding that SRS involves only a very few parts of the body not generally exposed in a public rest room.

This focus on bathrooms speaks to something important; that employers are doing little to educate employees about gender identity. Bathroom fears arise from several misconceptions:

MISCONCEPTION #1 sexual orientation and gender identity are the same thing. They are not. Gender identity refers to the strong and persistent identification of oneself as male or female. Such identity may precede any sexual orientation at all, since it can arise in very early childhood. Sexual orientation, on the other hand, is the romantic or sexual attraction to men or to women or to both. Transgender people, just as people who have not transitioned, may, therefore, have any sexual orientation.
MISCONCEPTION #2 transgender individuals are a threat in the bathroom because they will be interested in looking at the genitals of those whose gender they identify with. This is where ideology meets absurdity. The fact is that the vast majority of people who enter bathrooms have one or two things on their mind — elimination and/or hygiene. Transgender people at work are…at work. They think about their gender no more or no less than anyone else, and are no more or less inclined to have leering on their mind.
MISCONCEPTION #3 People whose sexual orientation is towards the same gender will receive sexual gratification from being in a bathroom with same-gendered people. It’s hard not to be snarky about this one…after all, there seems to be a true absence of workplace-bathroom-crimes-of-passion over the past hundred years while gay and lesbian people have been using same-gendered bathrooms; but let’s not go there. Instead, let’s speak to the obvious. Employers cannot predict what might arouse each of their many employees, but they can, and generally do make clear through their sexual harassment policies that ANY overtly sexual behavior in the workplace such as leering, making advances, following someone into the restroom for purposes of sexual gratification) is considered inappropriate. There is no data to suggest that either gender identity or sexual orientation is a factor in sexually harassing behavior — in fact, the majority of reported sexual harassment is between heterosexual individuals of the same or opposite sex ( a brief nod to Oncale, the Supremes case which recognized same sex harassment by heterosexual men)

And now, we get to the heart of the matter. Bathrooms become the battle ground because employers confuse their employee’s misconceptions with legitimate gripes. This in part is because employers don’t always provide anti-discrimination training that once and for all distinguish CONDUCT from STATUS.


When providing anti discrimination training, I always include a hypothetical such as.
“A devoutly religious employee learns that her new office mate is gay. She objects on religious grounds and asks that the individual office elsewhere.”
I ask the participants to describe what the company should do, and it is here that participants are often stymied between the “religious rights” of the employee and the obligation of the employer. This provides an opportunity to ask people the degree to which employees should be able to identify status preferences in their coworkers, or, for that matter, supervisors to identify status preferences in their employees. I offer up the example, for instance, that a Jewish employee asks not to work with anyone of German descent, or an African American asks not to work with white southerners –or a supervisor will not hire a person from New Jersey because his cousin was robbed by someone from New Jersey (sorry New Jersey.) Quickly, participants grasp that status cannot be the basis for discrimination. This allows me to move into the more sensitive area of transgender employees– and to point out that we cannot ask our employers to “protect” us from other qualified workers based on what we think they might do, but instead, we focus on what they actually do. If someone, for instance, is discussing their sexual activity in detail, or someone is evangelizing in an unwelcome manner, an employer will most certainly respond.

Finally, it is worth clarifying to participants in training that each of us has a set of values that are profound, important and personal. We can acknowledge that for some of us, those values generate strong feelings, biases and blind spots. Those are their values, and an employer has no business trying to change them; however, when they come to work, the organization’s values are the values that must guide them, and should their behavior be inconsistent with the values of the organization, the employee could find themselves disciplined for that behavior, including making statements that are bigoted, prejudicial, based on unfortunate stereotypes or inciting fear or anxiety. Thus, the employer protects them from behavior they object to, and protects everyone from having their status impugned by those who disagree with them.

In this time of economic challenges, full plates, individual and organizational stress, employers must be highly proactive to ensure that the organization fully engages its people, free from the unnecessary and divisive distractions brought about by a lack of education and awareness about diversity issues.

Tragedy, Civility and the Workplace

January 11, 2011

I can’t help thinking that the tragic shooting of public servants and innocent bystanders in Arizona must be turned from so dark a moment to a catalyst for something positive . With pundits and politicians arguing about a madman’s motives and either casting or deflecting blame, let it be sufficient to say that turning our attention to how we speak to one another can’t do any harm.

It has been a constant theme in my work of late to have employees discuss their concerns about political discussions in the workplace. When describing prohibited conduct, including protected class harassment, I am frequently asked about individuals who foist their views on others, who name call those without shared beliefs, or who attempt to rile up those with views different from theirs. I am asked if this is ‘harassment’ and must respond that it is not usually unlawful harassment (unless there are offensive protected-class related comments), but it certainly disrupts the workplace. With great frequency, the follow-on question is whether people should discuss politics at work.

How are we to answer this question? I tend to reflexively turn to the model that places politics in the “values” column, with the conventional wisdom being that discussing values in the workplace is risky — predominantly because if one’s values differ from a coworker’s it might be difficult to reconcile the opposing viewpoints sufficiently to continue to work together with good will. This is why we don’t have casual conversations about, say, abortion, or the existence or non-existence of heaven or hell; too often, an opposing belief creates personal animus that can sabotage effective workplace relationships.
Values, Attitudes, Behavior

Certainly there are legions of advisers who agree that discussing politics at work is divisive. Others note the geometric effect that social media has on creating complexity in workplace debates about politics.. They are right. Discussing politics at work is…well, impolitic, and risky.

I wonder, however, if the evolving workplace might someday provide a tonic to the tone of today’s political discourse. If we think about it, the workplace is uniquely bounded by policy, rule and culture. Good employers expect employees to value diversity and to behave respectfully and civilly in order to ensure high performance. These organizations have been working hard to let people bring their differences to work. In these places, conflict is managed maturely and well. Perhaps it is in those workplaces we will ultimately find the model for the rest of America; the America that understands that alignment of purpose does not mean agreement on strategy, and that different voices make for a great chorus.

It’s a challenge; if you and I work together, respect one another, trust one another and have much in common, perhaps we can resolve to have a discussion about our differences in a civil, respectful manner. Perhaps the workplace provides us a forum to listen to understand rather than to persuade. In other words, if all is going well, we are at our best in the workplace. We are hopefully surrounded by people who we value. Maybe it is at the workplace where we appreciate the contribution someone is making that we can hear views different from our own and recognize that not everyone who disagrees with us has to be one of the vilified “others.”

Is this idealistic? Absolutely, but as a consultant who spends time with organizations at their darkest hours as well as during their brightest days, I find the capacity to listen without judgment, hear diverse perspectives, learn to live with those who see the world differently and embrace conflict as energy to be harnessed leads to organizations that excel in every respect. What a wonderful possibility it is that the workplace could be a model for the larger society, and in turn become even a better place to make a contribution. It is certainly worth considering.

Let’s get real about diversity training

October 31, 2006

Diversity training is a multimillion dollar industry. There is no doubt a place for educating employers and employees about the challenges of our increasingly diverse workplace, and to focus on skills that will help those differences to add value, rather than dissonance. Increasingly, however, the evaluative literature on diversity training is less than encouraging. This article speaks to an important aspect of the area of diversity training:

The authors of this study, from Harvard, UC Berkeley and the University of Minnesota attempted to explore the relationship of different kinds of workplace initiatives on actual improvements in workplace representation in the managerial ranks. Looking at diversity councils, designated diversity managers, affirmative action plans, diversity training, mentorship programs and other kinds of initiatives, the authors correlated these initiatives to the numbers of white and black men and women in the management ranks of 700 private sector companies. Their conclusions? The strongest relationship between actual diverse representation and management ranks came from “responsibility structures,” such as affirmative action plans or designated diversity officers. The weakest? Diversity training. In fact, diversity training was sometimes followed by a negative impact on the numbers of women and minorities in management positions. Read the rest of this entry »

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