Confronting Bias Among Your Employees
Updated: Nov 28, 2020
I’m a manager at a company with a wonderfully diverse employee base. Many of our Latino employees speak Spanish as their first language and we’ve made strides to offer bilingual communication wherever possible through the HR department. However, language barriers can still create issues between English speaking supervisors and our primarily Spanish speaking employees. In one specific scenario, our English-speaking supervisor claims that a Latino employee on their team uses the language barrier as an excuse to “slack off” on assignments. He’s frustrated by the situation and now turns down any Latino candidates during the interview process for his growing team. His inability to effectively communicate with one Latino employee has created a bias against the demographic as a whole. How do we fix this?!
It sounds as if several things are going that can be addressed. First, the supervisor is clearly frustrated. It isfrustrating both when an employee seems to be slacking off, and when a language barrier prevents it from being addressed directly, in the moment. That said, since you describe a pattern in which the supervisor thinks the employee slacks off, it’s noteworthy that the supervisor hasn’t tried to address the pattern with the employee through a translator—at least as far as you know. That seems like one path toward a “fix”: for the two of the them (plus translator) to talk and for the employee to explain why he was doing what he was doing or not doing. Then the supervisor can make clear what he’d been trying to say and they can figure out how to proceed going forward. (For instance, using Google translate when communicating with each other if and when a translator isn’t feasible.) If the supervisor reports to you, you may want to have a conversation with the supervisor to learn more about why he didn’t try to have a conversation with the employee to clear things up—assuming he didn’t. Why did the supervisor let it go on so long without addressing it?
Another issue is that the supervisor seems to have generalized from his impression of a single Latino employee’s work ethic to all Latinos. That generalization is clearly a problem, and is likely a product of salience bias, a tendency to focus on information deemed noteworthy, while not paying attention to information that isn’t noteworthy. In this case, the supervisor seems to have overfocused on this one employee, ignoring all other Latinos’ good work performance—often because good performance doesn’t grab our attention they way “bad” performance does. One way to address the salience bias is to be made aware of it and how it effects our thinking. In this case, that might involve talking with the supervisor about the salience bias, and asking him to think of counter examples-- times when Latino employees’ haven’t slacked off, and to make those memories prominent in his mind. If the supervisor, and after talking with the employee through a translator (as suggested above), learns about the miscommunication, the supervisor can make that information more prominent in his mind: that the supervisor should have taken steps to make sure he was being clear in his instructions.
Finally, at the organizational level, it might make sense to address the language issue more generally. For instance, how do other non-Spanish speaking supervisors handle the language issue? Both you and the supervisor can try to collect information from colleagues and circle back to discuss what you’ve learned. Moreover, what resources are available through HR or other parts of the company to help with the language issues?
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