Unconscious Bias in the Workplace: A Conversation with Bettina Straight

By on November 1, 2017

A few weeks ago at the Maryland Association for Health Care Recruitment Regional Conference in Maryland, I had the opportunity to hear Bettina Straight give a great talk on unconscious bias in the workplace. She is an organizational consultant at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md. with over 20 years of experience training on a variety of leadership and diversity topics. I was so happy that Bettina was able to sit down with me and talk about unconscious bias and what organizations can do to constructively address the issue.

Tony Rosato: Bettina, let’s start with your definition of unconscious bias. What are common examples?

Bettina Straight: I define unconscious bias as the first, unsubstantiated thought we have about a person before we know anything true about them — usually a negative one. Sometimes the thoughts seem neutral, like assuming a doctor or a CEO is male; but this of course indicates that we associate success and power with men rather than women. Other common examples are when we assume that a criminal is a person of color or that a single mother is poor. We may even “know better,” yet years of messaging and stereotypes can expose themselves before we have a time to think more objectively.

TR: You mentioned that when you do diversity training there is a “pink elephant” in the room.

BS: I am a white woman who speaks about topics of diversity and often, people wonder why and what makes me a credible expert. I like to share my “why” early in my sessions so that people understand where I’m coming from. In my life, I know that because of certain identities I hold that aren’t visible, I am treated differently from those whose differences are more obvious. When I am in a job interview for example, I never worry that I will be discriminated against based on how I look, speak or dress —that’s privilege. In reality, I am a lesbian, I used to weigh 265 lbs., I have been in interracial relationships most of my adult life, I am married to a woman and have 15 tattoos and some piercings —all things that people might judge harshly if they wanted to.

TR: This is obviously a topic you feel passionately about. Why?

BS: Upon meeting me, you would know none of the things I just shared, so I get a “clean slate” in comparison to those whose identities are more obvious. I know that this is a privilege that I have not earned, but that is granted to me because of my appearance. I have watched my African American partners be treated differently from me in restaurants and stores. I have heard people make assumptions about “fat, lazy people” in front of me because they don’t think I’d be offended. I have listened to comments about how unprofessional someone is because they have tattoos. While I enjoy being the exception to the assumptions some people have in their head, I feel it’s important to respectfully discuss where those biases come from.

TR: Most of our readers are talent acquisition professionals, and I think the idea of challenging or changing unconscious bias in their recruiting process can seem daunting. Where do you recommend organizations start?

BS: A colleague of mine often says that she approaches all difficult conversations with the reminder that there is no shame or blame involved, and I love that. If someone makes a statement that indicates they may have a bias it is perfectly acceptable to ask, “What makes you say that?” or “I didn’t think of it that way, what makes you think so?” This challenges the person to come up with concrete examples and more objective reasoning, usually eliminating the biased assumptions they made. That’s when the “a-ha” moments can occur.

TR: What’s the biggest mistake organizations make in attempting to address unconscious bias in their workplace?

BS: I truly believe that the biggest mistake organizations make is that they don’t address the issue at all. In the past two years, I have had more and more leaders reach out to me to say that they need help and are in need of someone who is willing to start the conversation. Because it’s a sensitive subject, it is so much better to have the discussions before a crisis or incident takes place, but often we find ourselves reacting after the fact because we’ve avoided the topic. That’s where people run into the greatest problems, and that reinforces people’s preference to avoid those conversations moving forward.

TR: What’s the one thing you’d recommend to a recruiter looking to address unconscious bias?

BS: Remember that everyone has biases and that not everyone is aware when theirs is showing! Using the right language is key so that people don’t get defensive or shut down. I find it’s best to approach people with an assumption that they didn’t intend to be biased. I firmly believe that once people know better, they will do better, so I always want to keep the lines of communication open.

TR: How can the success or failure of these initiatives be measured?

BS: There are a few ways we can tell that this kind of training is having an impact. HR professionals will ideally see a decrease in biased events come to their Employee Relations team. Recruiters will see hiring managers broaden the pool of those they bring in for interviews. Individuals will learn about the subject through training and be able to identify situations where they recognize their own biases coming though and make changes to their behavior. And finally, we will see more instances of individuals being comfortable addressing instances of bias in a way that improves, rather than hampers communication and relationships.

For more information or to connect with Bettina, find her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bettina-straight-865a3816/.

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