Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The problems of prejudice in the workplace

Ah, yes. A very tough one from my MBA Prof! She clearly had me figured-out in a nutshell. I wish I were that good judging people and their capabilities and weaknesses. It would prevent me from falling on my face so many times!
Prejudice could be described as a perceived belief or opinion based on a bias towards a certain social group or individual without knowing the actual background. Prejudice in our world is daily executed against people from a different race, religion, social background, gender or from any other social entity. Prejudice can result from biased beliefs, affections towards certain minorities, or from social teachings.

Taking the above into consideration, we need to recognize that our own upbringing, and thus our personal values and beliefs, have been influenced to a large extent by taught stereotyping and biases, which, together with our own perceptions of society, generate prejudices. In order to eliminate our own prejudices effectively, we therefore would need to question all our beliefs and values, rephrasing underlying questions and search for new accurate answers. Clearly, this is an impossible task. It would be feasible though to start reducing prejudice from within one’s immediate surroundings, hoping for a rippling effect into social areas further from the originator.

To start reducing prejudice, we would need to recognize prejudice, understand the reasons behind it by researching as much information as possible, by asking questions, by listening intently, and by starting valuing differences in mankind (Clawson and Smith:1990). We would need to provide constant feedback, not only to the originator of the communicated prejudice, but also to the receptor and to our social leaders. This whistle blowing potentially also would have a resulting effect on copycats since slowly a culture of non-tolerance against prejudice would evolve. The so raised awareness could be regarded as a soft training concept where the trainees adapt almost unconsciously to a newly emerged dominant culture.

So, from a personal level, a first important step would be to speak out against all observed prejudice, regardless its surroundings, in a clear, nevertheless solidly founded manner. Going from the center of a circle, this would start with my own beliefs and actions followed with the ones exercised at my home where my children often pick-up beliefs from their immediate social surroundings and consequently unintentionally display prejudice in a certain form. I would need to actively address issues when socializing with my friends and not be reluctant to deal with the resulting potential conflict. For example, racial jokes should not be taken as jokes anymore since, even when disregarded right away by the receptor, only the habit of hearing them frequently leads to increased acceptance of, or at least indifference to, racism. Work is another social field where constant highlighting of prejudice issues could have a rippling effect. If each individual would actively suppress prejudice in his or her immediate surroundings, the world would eventually be overlapped with ‘prejudice-free circles’, which in turn would eventually offset possible low authority levels by initiators.

A final, and often overlooked, step in reducing prejudice consists of frequent re-evaluations of actions taken and their consequent results. As with most action plans, the concept of reducing prejudice would probably be prone to ever changing social surroundings and therefore would need some kind of adaptive elements. Amended, or even completely new, strategies would need to be implemented in order to achieve maximum gain from the program. Of course, reducing dormant prejudice elements is a mammoth task and will require significant joint efforts by all involved. However, a journey starts with a first step, as the saying goes. Even the smallest success in the endeavors to reduce prejudice would be cause for major celebrations.

Prejudice in the workplace will at some point in time hamper commercial prosperity of the affected organization. Even if prejudice is part of the existing, dominant culture, at least one employee will eventually feel offended and retreat into a state of non-communication and will shy away from interaction with peers, create a counterculture, or even leave the organization altogether; all options clearly not being in the interest of organizations due to loss of expertise and financial reasons. Clawson and Smith (1990) call this form of prejudice ‘institutional prejudice’ and claim that this form of prejudice is exercised by employees in power and continue arguing that this phenomenon has advantages and disadvantages. An advantage would occur in the organization’s selection process where managers would find their new recruits from the start fully adhering to the existing organization’s culture since candidates from different backgrounds and morales would not be considered for the position at all. The obvious disadvantage however would be that staff would be promoted purely based on the ‘blend-in’ factor and not on skills and knowledge.

By excluding non-adhering staff from any kind of further financial and social benefits, it is inevitable that the affected employee will retreat into various negative attitudes that lead eventually into a unwanted subculture, or even into a counterculture, within the organization. If handled unskillfully by management, this situation will counteract the organization’s financial and social profitability in the long run. Unbiased socialization therefore needs to form a prominent part in the organization’s culture. Only then can the organization truly make advantage of its diverse employee’s base.

As with most social phenomena, acknowledging prejudices is a first step to rectification. Leaders have generally the biggest impact on the organization’s culture. The path to an unbiased and non-stereotyping culture should therefore start with management. Once management has recognized that prejudice does form a part of their organization’s culture, research into the topic would need to be conducted by engaging all parties involved in a nondiscriminatory way. Questions as to who, why, and when need to be raised. Only by exposing underlying opinions of difference, a real consolidation process can take place. Of course, appropriate boundaries need to be established by management first. People concerned should be able to talk freely with no fear of prosecution of any kind.

Leading by example should be part of the strategy to eradicate prejudice within the organization. The organization’s policies should communicate clear messages with regards to an anti-prejudice culture. Frequent reminders, either verbally or in writing, by management should form part in the day-to-day operations. These measures however only work when staff recognizes that its leaders display and live by the same desired behavior. Contradicting and conflicting images would diminish the effectiveness of the program instantly.

Additional important steps to be undertaken could consist of training staff in not only displaying non-prejudice based behavior, but also in recognizing initial symptoms. Also, the establishment of organizational legal procedures to address findings and to resolve them would need to be implemented. And finally, the promotion of previously prejudiced against staff into higher positions within the organization based on clearly communicated skill and knowledge factors would send the strong message throughout the organization that indeed all employees are treated equally when it comes to individual career progress.

As an example to illustrate an actual experienced case of prejudice, I would like to refer to a recent situation at my company. Fundamentally, our organization is a relatively small one with little structured guidance in place. We foster a culture of entrepreneurship with high degrees of freedom for our employees with regards to job operations. As such, we do not have formal guidelines against prejudice in place. Generally, arising conflict is solved in an open dialogue manner and this approach has proven to be working.

In my example, we had recently hired a new business development executive. This person is of middle age and originally from the United Kingdom, making him the first Brit to work for us. Our consultants turn out to be almost exclusively older Americans with long experiences in our trade. We decided to hire the business development executive based on his knowledge of the region and his hands-on approach but realized from the start that he would need to learn the trade quickly in order to gain the respect from his potential customers as well as from his colleagues.

What we had not anticipated, however, was that our consultants were not willing to share their knowledge with the business development executive. At first, they complained about him not getting any new business in. Once requests for proposals from the executive’s territory started trickling in, the consultants immediately started complaining about the allegedly poor quality of the requests. It certainly seemed that the executive was in for a tough ride and in the end he would lose the battle and either shield himself from his colleagues as much as possible or even leave the company altogether, both options highly undesirable for the company, since our hiring process had shown that the business development executive would indeed generate additional business in the long run when managed in a very informal manner.

In our traditional way of handling such issues, we held a number of meetings with both parties, individually and collectively. These meetings however never concluded to the desired effect, which forced us to start probing into causes for the obvious hostility displayed by our consultants. We did this by having informal talks with all parties involved. Most of the time these talks took place outside the office after working hours since it is our experience that such an informal surrounding generally allows people to express themselves more freely.

The findings we collected were certainly a surprise to all of us and basically lacked all rationale. It seemed that our business development executive was not allowed into our tight knitted fraternity due to two main reasons: one, he is a British citizen and as such highly suspect (for whatever reason), and two, he is too young to have actual in-depth knowledge of our field of business. Fact is though that this individual has not been the first non-US citizen to work for us and he is certainly not the youngest. Our company prides itself in having a reasonable ethnic diversity, something we proudly advertise to our customers. However, reasoning towards this end did not seem to work with our consultants.

Since the company was getting close to experiencing subcultures, something we would not encourage due to the company’s beliefs and structure, we decided to implement a simple but drastic measure. In order to learn the trade from the more experienced consultants, the business development executive had been scheduled to consecutively share an office with the consultants. What we now decided however was that the respective consultants had to move into the office of the business development executive, starting with the consultant that displayed the most aggressive hostility towards the business development executive. This would hopefully send a message to all colleagues that the company stood by its new recruits.

As expected, the first week was a week of silence in the business development executive’s office. However, upon doing my daily round to all colleagues in the second week, I noticed loud laughter coming out of the ‘ice-box’ office. Clearly, somebody had made a joke and both parties were laughing! Apparently, this incident instantly removed all barriers between both camps. Once convinced of the social ability of the business development executive, the consultant suddenly became aware of the fact that this employee was indeed worth working together with as a person. The once hostile consultant even became an advocate of the business development executive, trying to convince his old buddies that they all needed to give this fantastic young ‘chap’ a chance!

The above example illustrates a classic example of cognitive and affective prejudice. Ever since the British were defeated on American soil, there is a, usually friendly, rivalry going on. However, this rivalry in jest does lead in some instances to more serious cases. World War Two aggregated these particular cases when it became clear that the United States needed to step-in in order to defeat the Axis forces, something the United Kingdom had proven unable to do by itself. Apparently, our consultants had been subject to continuous negative influence by their parents with regards to the ‘Brits being unable to do anything without US help’. A belief that was, while being transmitted, apparently never questioned and as such unconditionally accepted. In the end, all it took to eradicate this case of prejudice was to forcefully have the two parties working together, a solution that, for operational reasons alone, unfortunately never will work with larger corporations or even sovereign state involvement.

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