Corporate Meeting

UB Insider #47: Rooting Out Workplace Discrimination

About this episode:

Provo-based VitalSmarts recently conducted a survey of 500 victims of discrimination—race, age, gender, nation of origin, physical or mental disability, medical condition, pregnancy, marital status or sexual orientation—and found that 49 percent say it happens regularly, 66 percent say it has a large impact on their morale and dedication to or desire to work in the organization, and 60 percent say they felt they couldn’t master the discrimination. Overall, more than a quarter said the discrimination was common, impactful and beyond their ability to master.

In this episode of UB Insider, Joseph Grenny, co-chairman of VitalSmarts and co-author of the book Crucial Conversations, talks about what that means for people and workplaces, and how it can be solved. Subscribe to our podcast or download this episode on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or Google Play.

Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, Online Editor at Utah Business magazine. Provo-based VitalSmarts recently conducted a survey of 500 victims of discrimination from everything from race to age, to physical or mental disability and found that 49% say it happens regularly, 66% say it has a large impact on their morale and dedication or desire to work in the organization, and 60% said they felt they could not master the discrimination. Overall, more than a quarter said the discrimination was common, impactful and beyond their ability to master. Here to talk about what that means for people in workplaces is Joseph Grenny, Co-Chairman of VitalSmarts and Co-Author of the book Crucial Conversations. Welcome.

Joseph Grenny: Thank you, Lisa.

Lisa Christensen: So tell me broadly about the survey other than all of that that I just threw out there at you.

Joseph Grenny: Well there have been lots of studies that look at the frequency of discrimination. We wanted to look at the experience of it. So we were interested in, how does it affect people emotionally, professionally and financially? But also, what are the different kinds of discrimination that people experience? So again, rather than asking how often does it happen in a typical workplace, which has been treated, we instead wanted to say, if you’ve experienced it before let us dive deep with you on it.

Lisa Christensen: And how did they feel? What did they say when you did dive deep?

Joseph Grenny: Well first of all there is a famous psychologist, Martin Seligman, who describes the three things that help create depression, at least psychological things. The first is when something happens that you think is permanent. The second is when you think it’s pervasive, it’s going to affect a lot of your life. And the third is it’s uncontrollable. There’s nothing you can do about it. And those three characteristics came up with discrimination for a pretty significant percentage of the respondents. They said that this is something that is going to continue to happen, they can’t do much about it, and it also affects a lot of their experience at work. So that’s huge and that leads to professional depression in some ways.

Lisa Christensen: So when you talk about discrimination in this study and in this context, I read about a whole bunch of types of discrimination earlier, but what kinds did you find to be the most pervasive?

Joseph Grenny: Yeah, the most common pattern that we found, there were seven different kinds of stories that people told. But we call this one, “Don’t Be Yourself.” So it’s really us saying that a particular aspect of who you are is not okay in our workplace. And so people felt like they had to show up in a false way.

For example, if I had a different sexual orientation than people thought was acceptable in my workplace, then I was coached not to talk about my wife or my husband or my partner. And so people felt like they couldn’t be authentic. And that really causes you to feel distressed and disconnected from the professional friendships that you could otherwise have. But there were six kinds of other stories as well, but when you start getting into gosh, what would it be like if I couldn’t admit to people, for example, that I had a particular religious commitment. Boy, that really limits my ability to connect with people.

Lisa Christensen: So religious affiliation, sexual orientation, things like, you also mention age, pregnancy, other fairly significant parts of people’s lives.

Joseph Grenny: Yeah. Take pregnancy for example, I mean, if you’re wanting to get pregnant, you and your spouse and you’re wanting to have children particularly if you’re a woman and you’re in a workplace where it seems that that’s going to limit people’s planning for your career possibilities. What a horrible thing to have to make a tradeoff between. And yet a significant number of our stories said yeah, that’s how it works here.

Lisa Christensen: How did the respondents describe it hurting their career and their work performance?

Joseph Grenny: Well first of all it’s personal, second professional and third financial. At a personal level it’s this emotional distress of me having to be inauthentic or me feeling like I’m being manipulated into fitting into a box that’s convenient for other people. Professionally, people start to believe sincerely that opportunities are closed off to them. That you’re not going to get this advance or this project, that you’re not going to get invited to this meeting, people won’t share information with me. So you start to become marginalized in the workplace. And that, of course, has financial implications for you as well.

Lisa Christensen: And how does that affect the workplaces themselves?

Joseph Grenny: Well the mantra today in most workplaces is employee engagement. It’s how do we get people to show up and be their best and give 100% of what they have to offer? Well can you imagine somebody showing up that’s feeling like they’re being sidelined or marginalized or discriminated against in these ways ever doing that? But people don’t go down alone. They take others with them. So if people are hurting psychologically and being discriminated against, that affects and pervades others in the workplace as well. So it has a significant financial impact on the organization as well as on its culture.

Lisa Christensen: So what’s the difference between someone saying, hey you need to act more professionally in this way, and someone saying more or less the same thing but in a discriminatory way?

Joseph Grenny: It depends on if you’re addressing behavior or categories. So if you’re telling people look, you need to be kinder to our customers. You need to stop saying no often and so forth. I mean, there are legitimate workplace behaviors that are appropriate to be addressed. But when you start talking about identity being the problem, if it has to do with your ethnicity and I say that somebody from this particular country or something like that is going to offend our customers so lets not take them to our meeting, then you are colluding and creating that reality. So that’s the difference between the two.

Lisa Christensen: And how can you tell that it’s discrimination of that category? How do you suss that out?

Joseph Grenny: Well first of all these stories have all of the weaknesses of this kind of a study. These are first-person, subjective experiences. And yet they affect how this employee shows up. So whether or not somebody had an issue with me because I’m a woman, for example, that may be my perception in that moment, but it’s my perception and I carry that with me. So it’s going to affect my performance. So employees need to beware.

Employers need to be careful to try to make sure that people are alert not to just conscious bias but unconscious bias. We did another study a year ago, 11,000 people. We had them watch videos of a man and a woman making a strong, aggressive, assertive kind of a statement. A real passionate assertion. And then we asked people do you like that person? How much do you think they ought to make? How much should they be paid? And would you want to report to that person? And we varied the videos they watched based on gender. So we had a man do it and we had a woman do it.

When we had a woman make a strong, passionate statement, people said she should be paid $15,000 less than a man that made an equally emotional, passionate comment. They described her as angry more often and the man as strong. So there are these examples of people that have unconscious bias. And here’s the kicker, this is the punchline: both the men and the women that watched those videos made the same negative judgments about the woman. So that’s something for you to sit and think about for a moment. We all have these expectations of how people of a certain race or gender or ethnicity or whatever it is ought to show up, whether they’re good or bad. And sometimes we’re even unconscious of our biases. So it’s incumbent on leaders in the workplace to help people become more conscious of how their behavior could telegraph disrespect even when they don’t intend it.

Lisa Christensen: So what can workplace leaders do to both identify, you know, if managers under them or other employees are making discriminatory statements, or if there are things that are happening with those unconscious biases?

Joseph Grenny: Yeah, three things. We talk about the metaphor of the seed and the soil. So first of all, the employers are responsible for the soil, the environment, for the nurturing atmosphere that helps people to grow and do their best. And so employers are responsible to say what is not okay in the workplace, and to do so explicitly. If you’re not explicit about it, then there’s a lot of stuff that happens in the shadows that you’re implicitly buying into. So that’s number one.

Number two, there are opportunities for the people who are experiencing what they believe is bias and discrimination, even if it’s just subtle. The subtleties are the hardest to address. But employers can do a lot to say those are discussable here and we want a culture where people call it out. So if at the end of a meeting you feel like I did something that was inappropriate and you aren’t quite sure, it’s still okay for you to talk to me and say, “What did you mean when you said this Joseph?” And so legitimizing that and giving people skills to hold what we call crucial conversations in our work is essential so that I don’t walk away feeling wounded, but then not feeling like I can address it. And third, we need to build a culture of allies. We need people to know that they are responsible if they see somebody else being addressed in a discriminatory or biased way, that it’s their responsibility to call it out as well. If you do those three things you can make a enormous progress.

Lisa Christensen: Are there any misconceptions that people generally have about discrimination, either on how it presents, the victims of it or how it affects workplaces?

Joseph Grenny: Yeah, I think a couple of things. First of all we tend to think of discrimination as overt and intentional. And so typically it’s subtle. Typically it’s I don’t make eye contact with you, but I make eye contact with the man if the two of you were coming in for a sales call with me. Or if it was people of different ethnicities that I might touch somebody, but I wouldn’t touch somebody else. There’s small, subtle little cues. So it’s often not overt and significant. It’s often subtle and covert. Secondly, it’s often unconscious even on the actor’s side. And so that’s a common misconception as well that we’ve just got these bigoted people and that if they’d knock it off then the workplace would be a better place. Well it turns out that all of us are probably carrying a lot of these sorts of biases and we need each other’s feedback in order to identify them and root them out.

Lisa Christensen: What are some productive ways to identify and root them out?

Joseph Grenny: Well again, the primary way is to make them discussable. It’s for employers to say that this is something that not only we can talk about, but we have to talk about. And we’ve been studying for years how can people address these things in a really effective way that builds and connects you with others and doesn’t alienate them. That’s our fear. If somebody does something that bothers me, what we tend to think is if I bring this up with you, you’re my enemy forever. So I can get you to knock off the behavior, but I’m going to have to deal with this stressful relationship forever in the workplace. It turns out that it’s possible to be absolutely honest and absolutely respectful at the same time that actually through these conversations created a deeper sense of intimacy and sense of connection with other people. And that’s what we want people to learn.

Lisa Christensen: Are there any follow-up studies that you’re planning on doing to explore either deeper into this issue or other parts of this issue that were perhaps not looked at specifically in this study?

Joseph Grenny: Yeah, we’re looking at what you can do with unconscious bias. So when people are unintentionally doing things that are discriminatory, how can you alter something that I’m not even aware that I’m doing? So we’re actually working with companies like Facebook and Google and others that are out there at the front of these kinds of questions and trying to provide them with tools and experiments so that we can test whether you can actually change these sorts of really hidden patterns.

Lisa Christensen: Well great, I’ll look forward to that.

Joseph Grenny: Wonderful.

Lisa Christensen: Thanks for coming in today.

Joseph Grenny: Happy to. Thank you, Lisa.

Lisa Christensen: Thanks also to Mike Sasich for production help. Tell us what you thought at or on social media at @utahbusiness. You can also subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.