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The emotional and monetary prices of office bias

Key concepts of workplace discrimination – including code switching – and how to address them.

12, 2021

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The opinions of entrepreneurs' contributors are their own.

The dialogue on systemic racism has been intensifying lately, which is certainly helpful, but much more needs to be done to eliminate all forms of discrimination. This is especially true of American companies, which too often require colored employees to adhere to white norms of professionalism in order to be successful.

Related: 5 Tips for Better Handling Diversity in the Workplace

Exchange code

Belonging is a basic human motivation and essentially means that our authentic selves are accepted. Black employees often find that their authentic selves are not accepted in predominantly white work environments and therefore feel compelled to "code-switch" in order to hold out and move forward. This phrase, as defined in the 2019 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, “The Costs of Code Switching,” means “adapting one's language style, appearance, behavior and expression in a way that is convenient for others in exchange for exchange optimizes fair treatment, quality service and employment opportunities. ”To survive in the workplace, many black employees feel compelled to employ this tactic, an effort that takes a tremendous psychological toll. A study also conducted by HBR found that trying to avoid stereotypes is hard work that can “deplete cognitive resources and impair performance” and that “simulating similarities with colleagues also reduces authentic self-expression and contributes to burnout ". The same researchers also noted: “The study clearly shows that minorities who switch code are likely to face a professional dilemma: should they suppress their cultural identity in favor of career success or sacrifice possible career advancement for the sake of all of themselves work? ”HBR also pointed out that this poses both professional and psychological risks for the individual. It also harms organizations "that may miss the diverse perspectives and contributions of racial minorities who feel uncomfortable being themselves in the workplace".

Related: How Should You Talk About Racism With Employees?

Common racist norms in the workplace

Racist norms in the workplace are linked to biased standards of professionalism in terms of appearance, language, and emotions. A 2019 Stanford Social Innovation Review article stated that "Professionalism has become a coded language for white preference in work practices that tend to privilege the values ​​of white and Western workers and leave people of color behind."

Appearance is an area where cultural differences are usually not considered. For example, workplace standards related to hairstyle and clothing create an environment of exclusion for racial, ethnic and minority groups and send a harmful message that their looks do not fit in with the office culture. In addition, a language that does not meet the established standards of professionalism is often disregarded or devalued. The question is, what makes language okay or not okay? In the end, it's about clarity and understanding; Speaking in the same way is not a prerequisite for understanding, and certainly not in the construct of professionalism.

Emotions and reactions to them represent another racist workplace norm that needs to be questioned. Anger is an example of an emotion that black employees suppress at work. When a white person hears a black person's anger, it triggers activity in the amygdala (the part of the brain that is also activated by fear or anger), an effect that is not at all useful in productive conversation. The result is escalated emotions that do little to resolve situations. An integrative approach to response is much more effective; When someone from another race shows anger or other emotion, sit in, listen, and feel empathetic rather than making assumptions based on cognitive bias.

Names can even create prejudice in the workplace. According to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, an applicant with a name that sounds like an African American generally has a harder time getting a job. "Applicants with white names had to send about ten resumes to get a callback," according to some of the research results, while "Applicants with African American names had to send about 15 CVs to get a callback".

Name bias has also been on the news lately, including recent reports of Basecamp's executive team keeping lists of "funny" names of Asian and African origins. When employees argued that this practice laid the groundwork for racially motivated violence, the company's leadership team banned conversations on social issues and disbanded its internal initiatives for diversity and inclusion. While they may think that this would protect their culture, it was a decision that can actually reduce psychological safety by asking people to suppress parts of themselves in case other employees do not have the maturity to respect disagreements.

Related: The myriad benefits of workplace diversity

Benefits of inclusion, acceptance and diversity

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


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