When I teach my continuing education course, “Setting Clear Goals and Performance Expectations for Your Employees”, we typically discuss hot topics such as sexual harassment, gender harassment, diversity, inclusion, and implicit bias. Common questions include:
· What do we do about our gendered bathrooms?
· Where will the protected classes end?
· Can we still tell jokes at work?
I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the students who ask these questions. As licensed professionals who also run their own businesses, I think they are generally asking because they want to know how to create clear boundaries and “do the right thing(s)”. My answers are usually:
· How many bathrooms, stalls, or urinals do you have? Few of them have facilities that accommodate more than one or two people at a time, and they are often shocked when I tell them how many times I have used the men’s room, if the women’s room has a long line.
· It’s hard to say where or when we will stop protecting people from harassing behaviors or hostile workplaces. I hope we don’t stop, and I encourage them to consider the thoughts and beliefs behind the behaviors that concern them. If they are having a difficult time seeing a person as their equal—a human being with the same basic needs, fears, and feelings—there is a good chance an implicit bias or prejudice is at work.
· Yes, you can still tell jokes at work, but keep them clean—and funny. If they suggest a particular gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or gender identity is inferior, they probably aren’t funny and can get you in a lot of trouble, possibly with one of your best employees.
We all have similar questions. We all have implicit biases. Our brains are constantly processing information about the people we encounter, trying to assess them and the likelihood they will harm or benefit us. That is somewhat reassuring, yet it is also frustrating. Even with all of my human resources training, conflict resolution experience, exposure to many different cultures, and commitment to one unified human race, I still have hidden, unintentional preferences for particular groups or social identities. I have my own implicit biases that I am constantly looking to identify and challenge.
I don’t like this at all, in myself (or in others), but shaming myself is not an action that will transform much. What will? A recent American Bar Association Webinar [link] suggests:
1. List your social identities. Do you see yourself as a hard-working professional, a fashionista, a sports fan, a hipster, or a nerd? Are you a self-made success story, a failure, a privileged trust-fund child, or poor white trash, as I often feel I am?
2. Determine how these identities influence you. Do you wear branded clothing that immediately suggests to others who you want them to see? Do you position yourself among the wealthy guests at an event, or are you most comfortable with the staff? Do you reject help, or do you expect others to take care of your needs? Do you blame others or circumstances for your situations, or do you take full responsibility and rework your action plans to get the results you want?
3. Expose yourself to other cultures. Do people who look, dress, or speak a certain way scare you? Are you annoyed by others, who you wish would either leave your community or stay out of plain sight? Go to an event where you know there will be many of them. Ask them not about the differences you perceive, but about the things you likely have in common: residence, work, weather, family, pets, hobbies, dreams, and goals.
This won’t necessarily stop racist, sexist, or other negative thoughts. Your brain is neuroplastic and can be rewired to some degree, but it might take time. For example, at age 48, I sometimes have as many as 43 years of messaging to rewire. I’ll forgive myself for that, so I can move on to more productive action. I’ll also remember that of the [insert number from book] thoughts we have each day, we’re not engaging or taking action on each one. I can forgive my brain for sending a signal, or thought, that is inconsistent with who I want to be in the world, much like I can forgive my white blood cells for not fighting off a cold.
What thoughts, or types of thoughts, are you forgiving yourself for?