Why being conscious of your bias is the first step

March 16, 2018

When I was 19, I was rollerblading in a near-empty car park, practising doing circles and going backwards. That was a big manoeuvre for me back then! I was really starting to get the hang of it when a loud voice broke my concentration.

“You there!”

It was a woman’s voice coming from the tennis court next to the car park. At first I wasn’t sure that she was addressing me, so I carried on skating and ignored her. In the corner of my eye, I could see the woman signalling to her tennis partner to halt the game. She was now walking across the tennis court towards me. Her voice became more and more irritable.

“Yes, you! You there!” She banged her tennis racket against the mesh fence of the tennis court that stood between us. “What do you think you’re doing?”

At 19, I’d already been subjected to enough ignorant profiling to know what she was getting at. A black kid, especially a young black man, could only have been up to no good, despite every indication to the contrary. I stopped skating and looked up at her. Despite my anger, I somehow managed to stay calm and to keep my voice even. These are the words that came out of my mouth:

“I was actually trying to steal your car.” I said, nonchalantly gesturing around the car park. “Which one is it?”

The woman was dumbstruck; rooted to the spot like I’d just served an ace down the middle. Take that! I thought. I had said to her face what she was thinking all along. I turned away and carried on skating in the same spot. Now I’d love to tell you that I did a little mic drop and that was the end of it, but that’s not how this story goes. Five minutes later, I was pushed up against the door of a police car with my hands held behind my back by an officer. My guess was that they’d called the police before the woman had even started talking to me.

I was angry because this woman simply didn’t see me for who I actually was. I was a studious, hard-working kid, who had never stolen anything. She didn’t ‘see’ me. She didn’t even bother to look. And so she saw something else entirely, a work of fiction based on her own prejudice.

I’m telling you this story because of a promise I made to myself. I told myself that I would never be that person at the tennis court. I would never jump to conclusions about people. But twenty years later, I have broken that oath to my 19 year-old self. Many times over. The truth is, I carry bias in almost everything that I do. We all do. But the more I work on managing my biases, the better I get. Why am I telling you this? I hope that by admitting to my preconceived ideas, I can help others to be open to theirs and to learning more about how we can be more inclusive of others in the workplace.

Here are some things that I try to remind myself on a daily basis:

When you bring yourself to work, you bring the bias with you

I’ve previously written about the importance of being yourself at work. I strongly believe that to be true and non-negotiable. But let’s not get it twisted – while bringing my true self to work is incredibly important for my personal well-being, it can come at a price for those who work with me. I have bias. Both conscious and unconscious. Whether it’s during that interview where I decided early on that I wasn’t really feeling the candidate. Or how I assume that the middle class, death metal-loving white guy has nothing in common with me.

The bigger you are, the bigger the impact
The more power and influence you have over those around you, the more damage your bias can cause. For people who are managers, this is incredibly important. When John Amaechi OBE came to speak at LinkedIn recently about the importance of discussions around race and inclusion, he used the funny analogy of how managers are like giants who tower above their employees. I laughed hard at the time (because Mr Amaechi is too damn funny) but the point stayed with me: we must watch where we tread as we will have a lasting impact on our teams - good and bad.

Stop thinking that this doesn’t apply to you
Too many of us believe that we’re too ‘enlightened’ to be biased. We have travelled to several countries, have a diverse group of friends and are liberal at heart. For us, things like racial, gender or sexuality bias don’t exist. Those are problems that belong to past generations, right? Sorry, but not true. This isn’t about overt prejudice. It’s about how you inform the decisions you make, which can be a little harder to unpick. There are dozens of reasons why I carry bias. It could be my African upbringing, my immigrant experience in Europe and/or my professional experience.

Here’s an interesting test to see what might be shaping your bias. Write down the 10 friends who you trust the most in the world. And you can’t include family - no cheating. Then break down their key characteristics such as ethnicity, education level, class, sexuality. When I did this, it opened my eyes. The outcome was that although I pride myself on the fact that my closest friends are mixed racially and socio-economically, every single one identifies as cisgender and heterosexual. The point is, I don’t occupy as diverse a piece of the world as I thought, and I need to change that.

Don’t ‘tut’. Pick up the litter around you
John Amaechi OBE talks about how tolerating bad behaviour is like letting litter build up around the office. On a daily basis, so many of us tolerate the inappropriate things colleagues say about our female, gay, white or black colleagues. John points out how the most we do is ‘tut’ - just like we do when someone drops litter in the street. And just like litter, we view each instance as ‘too small’ an issue and we let it go. And before we know it, we’re surrounded by it. And that becomes part of our culture.

Be open to uncomfortable conversations
I’m not saying that bias is good, but the continual denial of its existence is so much worse. It gets in the way of meaningful conversations between colleagues that could lead to better understanding. Acknowledging that you’re not perfect makes you more open to learning. Hopefully, that means that I can feel comfortable telling my white colleague that I don’t appreciate the term ‘colored’ without him thinking that his card is marked and without me feeling like I’m now viewed as someone with a chip on his shoulder.

So, I hope that this will help anyone out there to understand that bias is not someone else’s problem. We all have a role to play to create a more inclusive workplace and we can only do this successfully together. That’s why I volunteer as part of Embrace, LinkedIn’s Employee Resource Group. Our mission is to overcome unconscious bias and build a sense of belonging by embracing cultural, nationality and ethnic diversity at every level of our organisation. The aim, and my hope, is that one day this becomes the new norm and the group becomes redundant. Until then, we have some work to do. Together.