Fear and anxiety tend to exacerbate negative feelings and stereotypes. Ultimately, these stereotypes can lead to an uptick in the sorts of microaggressions commonly associated with bias—both unconscious and targeted.
Anxiety associated with the coronavirus outbreak has led to a surge in microaggressions against certain groups, particularly persons of Asian heritage, given the virus’s origination in China. While we are witnessing increased outright, deliberate racist behavior, some of the negative actions we’re seeing is not necessarily intentional.
Additionally, the social distancing guidelines that have become the norm have lent credibility and justification for avoiding others, particularly those who may have already unconsciously made us uncomfortable. Distancing guidelines may even make people feel they have the right to verbalize their biases publicly. This is particularly true given restraints on people’s freedom due to the presence of the virus in our society—and beliefs that it was foreign-born.
A Foreign Virus?
Labeling the coronavirus, a “foreign virus” or “Chinese virus” as some have chosen to do, raises bias to a more explicit level, according to Dr. Bentley Gibson, an associate professor of psychology at the Georgia Highland College in Atlanta and one of BiasSync’s implicit bias experts. These labels lend even greater credence to the idea that because the virus originated in a country other than our own, we unwittingly—or wittingly—have the right to voice our prejudices against a whole culture or country. These labels trigger behaviors and actions that may otherwise lay dormant.
These “foreign” labels tie back to the fear and general anxiety around a situation we have little control over, and in some ways, give us a place to put those fears. In other words, it may comfort us to a certain degree to tell ourselves that the outbreak is the fault of another country—a group of people other than “our own.”
At the same time, it’s important that business leaders and managers be aware that we may be training a lens on the behavior and actions of particular segments of society without realizing it. We may hold certain unconscious requirements or expectations of specific groups of people—standards that we don't necessarily hold others to. And when these expectations are met, it may confirm our most virile and misguided prejudices—and most important, may lead to certain people in the workplace feeling as if they are being treated differently or unfairly.
Social Distance Creates Real Distance
The prejudices this pandemic has exposed demonstrates how it is more important than ever for company leaders to help navigate bias— conscious or unconscious—within their organizations. It may be particularly challenging for leaders to manage employees’ perceptions of each other while working at home is the temporary norm, and there is no physical workplace community to help bring people together. But once stay-at-home guidelines are eased, and people start returning to the workplace, social distance guidelines may have created real distance.
Dr. Gibson says business leaders will also need to be especially mindful of microaggressions that some of their team members may have experienced during the outbreak—and what they may go through once they return to work. Are there decisions being made based on race and ethnicity? Are people experiencing more social stereotypes as a result of distancing and other vestiges of the virus? Leaders will need to be hyperaware of any stereotypes that may have been reinforced during the height of pandemic-appropriate practices and how those stereotypes may play out in the workplace.
The Way Forward
Heightened anxiety and fear create ripe conditions for expressions of microaggressions, microinsults, and other biased behavior. And organizations will need to take this into consideration. Safety, of course, should be the first priority. But companies will also need to recognize that implicit bias is an emerging issue, and there are data to show that heightened bias is becoming a significant problem in workplaces.
There are some questions you can ask to mitigate the impact of bias during this type of crisis among your teams. If you wonder whether or not your words and behavior are indicative of bias, whether it's in the form of microaggressions or microinsults, ask, would you say the same thing to a different group of people? If the answer is yes, there is a high probability you’ve acted biasedly. It’s also important to remember that communication is not always verbal, and inclusivity is not just about your words, but the expression on your face. What is your facial expression—your body language—saying? Is it telling someone they feel included or safe?
As we sort out ways to mitigate bias away from the physical workspace and make plans to eventually return to the office, here are a few important tips to help mitigate unconscious bias and stigma:
• Raise awareness that in times of fear and crisis, people may be more prone to expressing bias inadvertently or even intentionally displaying blatant racist behavior.
• Communicate that this public health crisis can lead to social stigma toward certain groups of people, particularly those of Asian descent, those who’ve recently traveled, and healthcare providers.
• Let people know that one way to evaluate their behavior is to ask, “Would I say the same thing or act the same way if they were a different race or from a different country?”
• Be aware of behaviors or decisions that stigmatize certain groups of people, such as referring to COVID-19 as the “Asian Coronavirus” or making company-wide decisions that exclude (or only include) certain groups of people.
• Share up-to-date, accurate information from global, federal, state, and local governments and agencies regarding the virus’s spread.
• Remind employees about your company values and policies. Use stories and examples to reinforce what your company values and policies are.
• Continue to offer regular unconscious bias training and assessments across the entire enterprise, including leadership—even if it’s conducted virtually.
Learn more about how crisis and fear can exacerbate bias and discrimination. Watch the video of our CEO, Michele Ruiz interviewing Dr. Gibson talking about what leaders should be aware of during COVID-19 and times of stress. Visit: https://youtu.be/KVsz2OU_xYI
BiasSync. Our purpose is to create more fair and respectful workplaces. For more information on BiasSync – training, unconscious bias assessments and measurements - visit: BiasSync.com
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