Uncovering Bias – The impact of Stigma on workplace attitudes and opportunities

As you may know, Saturday 1stDecember was World Aids Day. And here’s some good news – The UK is one of a small number of countries to meet UNAid’s 90-90-90 targets on HIV diagnosis, treatment and transmission rates. Here’s some even greater news – for the first time HIV infections in the UK are falling, thanks to new treatments that prevent the spread of HIV and treatments that control infection.

 

The good news stops here. 

 

The power of Stigma as a force for bias decision-making 

 

Despite an increase in social awareness, many individuals living with HIV today hide their status from family, friends and work colleagues due to the continuing stigma of being HIV positive. Stigma, as stressed by the UK-based charity AVERT, is a major cause of workplace prejudice and discrimination in the UK and beyond.

 

Erving Goffman, one of the greatest social psychologist of the twentieth century, has shown how stigma works through a process of labelling which seeks to attribute negative associations which in turn discredits a person or group. Today stigma affects a wide range of social groups including, those with mental health issues, disabled people, those from certain social backgrounds, being a single parent, an ex-offender, an older worker, the homeless, those who society considers to be overweight, trans people, religious groups…this list goes. Of course, all of us occupy a number of stigmatised categories and thus face multiple forms of bias and discrimination in the labour market.

 

Covering

 

As well as identifying the role of stigma as a form of power designed to ensure individuals conform to social and organisational norms, Goffman also identified what he termed ‘covering’ – the strategy many of us take to conceal something about us that we feel ashamed of because of the stigma others attach to one or more aspects of our identity.

 

In Uncovering Talent: A New Model for Inclusion, by Deloitte University the authors identify 4 types of covering at work:

  • Appearance: Covering up aspects of ones’ appearance, including attire and mannerisms. For example, not wearing religious clothing and women’s ‘power dressing’. Or playing down femininity.
  • Affiliation-based covering:Not talking about ones identity or not wanting to support related work events or talks for fear of being outed. For example, gay men or women not wanting to support Pride related events.
  • Advocacy-based covering:Not wanted to be to advocate for, or sticking up for your group’s issues or colleagues. This results in down-playing their own condition. For instance, members of BAME groups, not championing Black History Month or senior women no wanting to support gender inclusion at work.
  • Association-based covering:For instance, not wanting to attend employee network groups for fear of being exposed and discriminated against. For example, people with hidden learning disabilities or those with mental health conditions not wanting to attend networking events or being part of a workshop panel on such issues.

In many ways, I see covering as a form of Stereotype Threat, as identified by the great African-American social psychologist.Claude Steele. Stereotype Threat is the phenomenon by which individuals feel that they may be at risk of conforming to a negative stereotype relating to a social group of which they are a member – disabled people, working class, an ex-offender, an older worker, members of the LGBT community, the overweight, trans people etc.

 

5 ways in which Stigma leads to bias thinking and decision-making 

 

Like Stereotype Threat, which has shown to have a negative impact on the performance of negatively stereotyped groups, stigma and covering, affects individuals in the following ways:

 

  1. Employers refusing to hire someone because they are, for instance, older, gay, overweight, a Muslim, working class or an ex-offender
  2. Not being assigned to a project team
  3. Negative assumptions about work commitment which in turn impact career planning conversations
  4. Being gossiped about by co-workers
  5. Exclusion from conversations and workplace social events

The consequences of such biases and discrimination leads to an increase in stress and adecrease in emotional well-being, together with the withdrawing from work colleagues. Confirmation bias is then used by colleagues and managers to justify further criticism and exclusion.

5 ways to challenge Stigma at work

 

  1. Be less Judgey: We all have biases, but actively working towards mitigating these is a fundamental principle of workplace inclusion
  2. Go out of your way to get to know all team members on an individual level – this helps to reduce stigma by breaking down the stereotypes which facilitates stigmatic thinking
  3. Don’t contribute to office gossip and make it safe to challenge others who do
  4. Be consistent in work allocation decisions
  5. Create a set of team rituals with are designed to foster group connectivity

 

 

Written by Dan Robertson, Director of Vercidaconsulting.com

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