Bias is alive and well in the American workplace. Although blatant examples of discrimination, racism and sexism are thankfully rare, subtle assumptions still exist about individuals based on the group to which they belong. These assumptions cause that quiet voice inside us to say, "I know you; I know all about you; I've met someone like you before," when we meet someone new.
Quite simply, biases are preconceived judgments about the abilities, personality and values of someone you do not know. One of the biggest myths about bias is that the prejudgment is always a negative one. When we think of bias, we think of inaccurate and inappropriate statements like, "All men are sexist," "All women are hysterical," and "All gay people are flamboyant." In fact, it is just as biased to say, "All men are assertive," "All women are nurturing" or "All gay people are artistic," even though these are good characteristics -- most of us would love to be assertive, nurturing and artistic.
The truth of the matter is that positive biases can be just as unfair and destructive as negative ones. Both restrict accurate perceptions of people's personalities and values, distort interactions with them and limit their ability to be themselves. Think, for example, of the awkward position that a man who is shy, retiring and soft-spoken is in, given the stereotype that men are assertive -- after all, our culture shouts, "Real men don't eat quiche." Because this man doesn't conform to the basically positive stereotype of assertiveness, he is considered a wimp or a weakling. If we were willing to look at each person as an individual, we would see this man as a gentle human being who doesn't need to conform to a culturally based bias.
Suppose a woman finds herself in the same position. She is married, makes a nice income and is physically fit. She is a good woman with a good marriage and a great fondness for the nieces and nephews who are an important part of her life. Despite her love of children, she and her husband have chosen not to have any of their own. This is fine for her, but the problem is that people look at her just a little bit funny when they learn of her life choice. "What's wrong with her?" they seem to be asking. "She must be awfully selfish not to want kids when she has so much to offer."
Finally, imagine a young, gay man with a passion for baseball, 1950s rock and roll and Mexican food. As much as he loves these things, he has an equally strong aversion to art galleries and talking about women's clothing, and he couldn't care less whether his couch matches the wallpaper. In short, he conforms in no way to the popular bias dictating that gay men are artistic. This was most disconcerting to his boss, who asked him to supervise the redecoration of their small offices. The boss was angry when he learned he had hired an interior decorator and wouldn't just do it himself. This man ended up looking bad, not because his boss believed gay men are overly emotional or flamboyant, but because his boss assumed he would have the skill and interest to redecorate the office himself.
Many of us fall into the trap of feeling good about our positive biases. Thinking that all Mexicans are family loving, all African Americans are musical, and all workers with disabilities are cheerful and brave provides us with the illusion that we are tolerant, loving people. In fact, these positive biases are just the flip side of racism or homophobia and can be just as destructive to workplace relationships.