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How to tackle a boss who’s showing bias — without damaging your relationship

two women talking

Bias can show up at work in myriad ways, from using stereotypes in conversation, to making assumptions about a person’s circumstances or motivations. Highlighting bias is important; letting ‘harmless’ statements and comments go unchecked perpetuates low inclusion and even discrimination.

But what happens when the person exhibiting the bias is your boss? Research[1] shows that people find it difficult to stand up to biased comments from someone more powerful than them — and for those in the minority it can be even harder.

Many large companies have inclusion ambassadors who can engage with the person on your behalf, whatever their level. But in a smaller company you may not have such mechanisms to formalise the issue. What’s more, your relationship with the person might not be one that allows you to be direct about their inappropriate comments or remarks that highlight a lack of inclusion.

So how can you challenge someone more senior who shows biases in both an effective and appropriate way? We look at five ways to help you get the message across and allow them to reflect and grow as leaders while improving inclusivity in your workplace.

 

Pick your time carefully

One of the most sensitive but important things about challenging bias in a senior manager is choosing the right moment. The choice to speak out in the moment or bring it up in a conversation later is a key one and will depend on your relationship dynamics, your boss’s character and the nature of the bias. If inclusivity is an active policy in your company and your boss is usually someone who strives to embody this culture, then it’s likely the bias is unconscious and they may not mind — and indeed may welcome — you highlighting it in the moment. But if you’re unclear, or if they’re in front of a client, another leader or a large group, it is more prudent to wait and raise in private. Arrange a time to speak with them as soon as you can after the incident, and be clear and concise when outlining what happened, the implications of it and how you feel that your workplace culture can benefit from greater awareness around this.

 

Have some rehearsed phrases to hand

Biased statements can take people by surprise, especially if their general business culture is one of inclusivity. Unconscious bias can be jarring too as it may come from a manager or leader who the employee knows is actively working on themselves to become more inclusive (and would hopefully therefore be horrified to hear they’d fallen down on this). Having a few rehearsed, well thought-through statements or questions can be very helpful in arming you to call out bias when you experience or see it without getting flustered — and especially useful in the case of a leader when dynamics may be sensitive. These should be designed to draw attention to the bias and its implications and to get your manager to rethink their thoughts, as well as expressing your discomfort around the issue if needed. Such phrases could include: ‘What specifically did you mean by that because I’m not sure I understood?’ orThat could be taken the wrong way — can you explain what you meant?’

 

Assume this is a learning situation

Co-founder of the Perception Institute, Alexis McGill Johnston is working to turn research on identities into solutions that reduce bias and discrimination. She notes that naming, shaming or blaming people automatically puts them on the defensive, and that confronting bias requires you start from a place where the assumption is ‘most people are fair’. The goal here is receptivity, awareness and change, and an honest and open exchange. Starting with an enquiry is more likely to set the tone for a fertile discussion than an accusation — Are you aware how that comment might be perceived by some of our workforce?’ or ‘Is that assumption true – how do we know that?’ Research[2] has shown that people with a growth mindset themselves are more likely to confront a biased statement, the idea being that if you believe that people can change, then speaking up is seen as a productive way to express disagreement but also to spark that change.

 

Use specificity to highlight bias

Specificity is an excellent way to challenge bias in a non-threatening manner. And when asked for in a spirit of genuine curiosity it’s one of the most efficient tools to allow people the opportunity to rethink what they are — often unconsciously — perpetuating. Johnston cites the example of being in a meeting and having someone mention that a certain woman is aggressive because they have asserted a point or pushed back on something. Asking the question, ‘What do you think makes her aggressive?’ or ‘What did she say or do specifically that made you say that?’ will force the person who made the comment to think beyond stereotypes. Johnson acknowledges that questioning can be hard to do when ‘managing up’ but emotional and psychological safety are key components to productivity in the workplace and ultimately the ability to ask questions of people at all levels for clarification is not only needed — but warranted.

 

Know when to use ‘I’ and ‘it’

Knowing when to use the word ‘I’ and when to use the word ‘it’ when calling bias out can affect the way it lands. Using ‘I’ creates resonance as it indicates that you have experienced harm or discomfort in a non-judgmental way. It also invites the person to consider their actions and responses from your perspective — and why what they said or did seemed biased to you. Examples include: ‘I don’t think you meant to imply what you did there?’ or ‘I don’t feel comfortable with the implications of what you just said’. Empathy is a key soft skill in the suite of emotional intelligence, and by inviting this kind of recognition you can have a powerful effect on your manager and their development. If you observe bias that is sustained or even becoming prejudice (bias with intent), then using ‘it’ is a neutral way to discuss a boundary of acceptability with a senior manager in a clear manner, either ‘it is company policy to…’ or ‘it’s disrespectful to call a woman a girl.’

 

[1]https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/josi.12082?casa_token=w3qlljfH1JkAAAAA%3AoZ4M_K85Dz_s3scLA1GBukeNbjK__Io20FW08we0wLvq1755sabYaknVFKEDTz_K86iIwtB1yC32NarQ

[2] https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2018-09740-001