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Small Business Digest


Overcoming Racial Stereotypes Is Smart Business, Spurs Professional Growth

Racial stereotyping has hurt more than one career and many business efforts.

All people have racial stereotypes that are picked up, starting at a very young age, from parents, teachers, friends, classmates, the news media, the entertainment industry, and from personal experiences. 

It's human nature and unavoidable to make unfair generalizations about others based on their race.

It's important for people to understand that they'll never really be able to erase the "bad" information in their heads. But people can train themselves to be more mindful of how that bad information affects their daily actions, reactions, and decision-making.
They can learn how to manage the bad information.

They also can become more aware of their gut reactions to people who are different from themselves, and can question those reactions knowing they likely are based on stereotypes and biased images.

Indeed, a major focus of diversity training is helping people understand and manage their biases-because people know they can't completely erase their prejudices.

Three Ways Racial Stereotypes Can Affect Your Career

Having preset assumptions about people based on their race can have a significant effect on a career. Here are some reasons why:

Cuts off opportunities for growth and competition. If someone brands a coworker or employee as slow; naive; nonintellectual; good at numbers but bad with people; great at following directions but not leader material; or some other limiting stereotype based on that person's race, the person will not be able to take advantage of the other's different and potentially valuable approach to a problem or task. Tapping diverse viewpoints and styles drives innovative problem solving and learning.

Creates low morale and low retention. A workplace infected with prevalent racist attitudes and policies is a place where nobody wants to work. Studies show people of color are three times more likely than their white counterparts to quit a job based on perceived unfair practices at work based on their race. Whether someone is a manager or a coworker, having an intolerant culture will affect everyone's performance and make the workplace a rollercoaster of instability.

Leads to poor productivity. When racism is rampant in an organization, people will not team up, communicate, or consult about important tasks that require collaboration and multiple perspectives. Also, having preconceived notions about the way things should be done-that is, the majority view-forces people with different working styles, experience, and viewpoints to bend to the will of the majority. This results in individuals not working at their best and highest potential.

How to Spot Racial Bias in a Workplace

Here are some common signs to watch for that signal the existence of racial bias in a company.

Extracurricular diversity programs. When diversity and inclusion workshops are offered as occasional extracurricular activities, it demonstrates a lack of organizational commitment to cultural competency. Diversity and inclusion should be policy, not an "extra" that's subject to cost cutting.

Chronic absenteeism or high turnover rates. Does the company notice that women are constantly quitting, or that Asians, Hispanics, and African-Americans seem to come and go? Low retention among certain groups could be a red flag that an organization needs to do much more to reach out to and include these valuable employees.

Poor performance. Performance problems are often blamed on people rather than on organizational structures, systems, and ways of doing things (the organization's culture). Poor employee performance can result from a number of things, including such factors as stress, exclusion, and lack of opportunity.

A dominant decision-making style. Is risk-taking discouraged? Have employees been given the message "it's our way or the highway"? A single way to get things done may seem like efficient management, but it both discourages multiple perspectives and styles, and leaves exceptional talent and ideas untapped.

Homogenous leadership. Is the C-suite all white males? What about department heads? Organizations that truly value diversity and inclusion practice what they preach. If the same people are getting passed over for promotion, cultural competence may be a problem at the top.
Water cooler slights. Seemingly innocent racist, sexist, ageist, or other insensitive jokes are a sign that the company culture tolerates disrespectful behavior. The use of mascots, symbols, or holiday celebrations that exclude certain groups is another sign. Such everyday conversations and activities can unwittingly hurt coworkers.

Not using diverse suppliers. Companies that are truly committed to building a diverse and inclusive organization in order to be innovative and competitive will also seek out diverse suppliers.

A good first step is for people to become aware of their own biases. Then extend that awareness out into the workplace and engage others in diversity dialogue. Opening up to diversity and inclusion benefits everyone.

Adapted from article by Steve L. Robbins, president of SL Robbins & Associates (, and author of What If?: Short Stories to Spark Diversity Dialogue (Davies Black, 2008).


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