Sunday, February 7, 2016

Discrimination in the Workplace and in Life - What's the Cost?

Diversity Mask from Spiva 
Quite a few things have come up in the past few weeks and months that have pulled my attention back, again and again, to subtle and not so subtle examples of discrimination in the workplace and in life.

With all that’s going on in the US - in recent times especially easy to watch because of the internet - the issue of white racism against blacks and Latin against blacks and white against anyone non-white and Trump against anyone with an IQ over 40 … well, it is not hard to see that discrimination is alive, well and kicking serious ass in the US. The UK and many other nations are not so far behind when it comes to the BIG issues of discrimination. 

But that’s not what today’s post is about.  I’d like to take a look at the more insidious, less famous kind…the kind you often don’t notice until a few minutes past it happening…the kind that rarely makes the news but as it leaches possibilities out of our lives, immensely impacts us all.

This kind of discrimination takes many forms – it’s sometimes race based, sometimes accent based, sometimes clothing based, sometimes geographically based, sometimes looks based, sex based, newbie based, age based, faith based, makeup, too many smiles, too few smiles, voice, mannerisms, shoes, hairstyle, car, no car….you name it. Sure, some are more prevalent than others – race, sex, faith, appearance being the biggest I think, but it’s not the tripping factor of discrimination that interests me so much as the fact that it exists and what it does to our lives and our potential.

Why do we so often assume negative things about people? Judging potential not by examining facts, but by an assumption that is based for instance, not on what is being said, but some other characteristic of the speaker? Or even what will be said.

So many people do it – you recognize something that you associate with being an inferior trait – messy hair, darker skin, female, casual clothes…and your mind applies that negative feeling to everything else that person does or says. Think about when you’ve noticed a small shift in posture and an almost imperceptible change in facial expression that comes across a person’s face. How often have you seen that? A subtle, somewhat blank, ‘patient’ expression, or the slightly raised eyebrows, just a little, and widened eyes that seems to say with an almost imperceptible sneer, “Really, you think you are worth my time?”

I’m sure, if you are sensitive to it, you’ve noticed people doing thing. And if you think about it, you may find you also do this now and again…I suspect most of us do. I’d like to say I don’t because I really was brought up to ‘give the benefit of the doubt’ but my parents had their biases and they passed them on to us, as did our teachers, friends, colleagues…so I know I am not free of this shortcoming.

What is going on here really and why? Judging value based on a measure that usually has nothing to do with the ability of the person to contribute.

Yes, in some cases, pre-judgements may be based on the person previously having said or done something that was below par, but why is it that we often then let that flourish and grow while we lose our ability to give benefit of the doubt and perhaps act on an alternate assumption, for instance, that the person does have worthwhile contributions but perhaps is nervous or just finding it hard to articulate?

Think how much you have learnt in life from the mistakes you’ve made (Hopefully!J) …why are we so hard on mistakes other’s make?

“You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”  Richard Branson

Why is it then, when we look at other people, that we so often default to locking down our ability to hear and to process facts; lock out our faculties of genuine reasoning in favour of our faculties to embrace negative bias?
I have heard so many varied people talk about how society will judge you by the norms, so if you are outside the norms, expect people to judge you for that. But really? Is this the limit of humanity’s mental and empathetic capacity? Is this all we are capable of?

Wasted Potential

Just stop to think of the wasted human potential of people with something to contribute being shut off and cut off based on a trivial prejudice or a minor, or major, previous stumble.

Just stop to think how many times this has happened to you.

Just stop and think how many times you have done this to someone else.

Why do we need this layer of self-protection? What is it that we really are afraid of? Do we actually have anything to lose by embracing people who have different ways or appearances to us? We don’t have to be best friends, but why not entertain that there may be more to gain from actively seeking to assist someone else to show their potential; make their contribution than there is to writing them off because of a trait that most often has nothing to do with the issue at hand?


It isn’t anything about people who are less capable of contributing. It’s about our prejudices and how they limit ourselves and by extension, limit our world. Limit OUR world - not just that of the person we’re being prejudiced against. Think about it for a moment. Think about how often you know your contribution would have made things better if only people could have understood / listened / seen…not pre-judged you.

Think about how often you have let prejudice in when someone is trying to contribute. Why not assume they, like you, may have had something really worthwhile to bring to the table. Think about what you may have lost in that process.

And by ‘prejudices’ I mean all our ‘societal norms’; the many, seemingly innocuous, things we are taught to judge people by that really are imperfect measures at best and downright damaging at worst.

“First impressions count” Yes, indeed they do, but often they are counted so many times over instead of being counted accurately, just once for their true - limited - value.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” We are all taught this wonderful saying, but then we are taught in so many ways, shapes and forms, to ignore this lovely simple core truth and judge cover after cover after cover. Just think what we lose.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” We can’t change how others do things, not directly. But we can change what we do. We can change our habit of judging people by misleading measures; we can choose to listen and hear and to assume value is there to be uncovered and so choose to be an agent of discovery rather than an agent of oppression. Just think what you would prefer in every situation you have been wrongly judged: Do that unto others and see if there is not more than enough to go round if we just stop killing off each other’s potential. See if life does not become better, fuller, and more successful…

Worth a try, isn’t it? What do you think?