How can employees combat biased perceptions in the workplace? We explore how to fight stereotypes, encourage authenticity, and rethink assumptions in the corporate world.

Interacting with bosses, coworkers, and employees in the workplace, whether face-to-face or virtually, is a nuanced experience. While engaging with teammates is a great opportunity for enhanced collaboration and communication, it also heightens the probability of biased perceptions coming into play, even inadvertently.

The first step to fight biases in the workplace is to talk about it. Having honest conversations about diversity, inclusion, and equity encourages education and growth.

“You can’t solve it if you can’t admit it,” explains Eric Ellis, president and CEO of Integrity Development Corp., a firm specializing in inclusive consulting, coaching, and training. “Corporate America must prepare for difficult conversations if it’s truly serious about creating an equitable workplace.”

Fighting Biased Perceptions at Work

One of the many reasons Black@Apex, an employee resource group at Apex Systems, is so important is because they create a safe, uplifting, motivating space for Black employees to have their voices heard.

The group recently hosted a community conversation to discuss how to combat biased perceptions of Black women at work. Anyone can be a victim of biased perceptions in the workplace, but Black women face an additional set of challenges due to perceptions against both their race and gender.

Co-chair Janet Ezell (Director of Benefits) led the virtual event, while Tiara Lindsey (Senior Recruiter and Team Lead) and Michelle Woolfolk (Benefits Team Lead) shared key insights and personal experiences.

Did You Know?

  • As many as 62% of Black workers in STEM fields—compared to 44% of Asians, 42% of Hispanics and 13% of whites—revealed they have experienced racial or ethnic discrimination at work.
  • 64% of Black women in the U.S. do not feel like they are treated with respect in the workplace.
  • 67% of Black women do not feel like a valued member of their team.
  • Only 31% of Black women agreed with the survey statement, “If I raised a concern about ethics and integrity, I am confident my employer would do what is right.”
  • Black women make up almost 7% of the American workforce, yet they are underrepresented in leadership roles, especially among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
  • 20% of Black women leaders experienced having someone say or imply that they weren’t qualified for their role.

Defining Micro-Messaging

Black@Apex’s event kicks off with an icebreaker that allows attendees to explore how open they are at work versus in their personal lives. They then discuss the concept of micro-messaging, which encompasses the intentional or unintentional messages that people send. Micro-messaging can be verbal or non-verbal, and includes the following:

  • Microaggressions: Statements such as "You're so articulate" or "Where are you really from?" are microaggressions that often evolve into microinvalidations.
  • Microinvalidations: Examples include tropes like, "When I see you, I don't see color," which can then lead to microinequities.
  • Microinequities: Includes consistently being interrupted while talking during a meeting, or the constant mispronouncing of names.

The group discusses that what triggers one person might not trigger another, so it is crucial to be mindful. Some subjects shouldn’t be tackled at work, and some questions should never be asked. For example, it is always inappropriate to ask a Black woman if you can touch her hair.

It's important to see colleagues and employees as singular people and accept who they are instead of making assumptions.

Encourage Authenticity at Work 

Ezell, Lindsey, and Woolfolk reveal that authenticity in the workplace is a sensitive issue, as many Black women risk being misinterpreted or mislabeled. For example, if a Black woman is in the office chatting with coworkers and her volume elevates because she's passionate about the topic, it can easily be misinterpreted as her being an “angry Black woman.”

A 2022 Harvard Business Review article states, “Studies show people in organizations believe Black women are more likely to have belligerent, contentious, and angry personalities…this negative perception is a unique phenomenon for Black women, and the researchers suggest that when Black women outwardly express anger at work, [their] leadership and potential are called into question.”

One way to combat this false belief system is to make it easier for all employees to be their authentic selves at work. By fostering an inclusive, open environment from the C-suite down, an organization can make it easier for Black employees to be themselves and not worry about being mislabeled. Forbes and BetterUp offer the following suggestions for companies who are trying to increase authenticity at work:

  • Lead with empathy.
  • Ask employees for feedback.
  • Support personal and professional development.
  • Respect others’ boundaries.
  • Create safe spaces for difficult conversations.

Don’t Put Anyone in a Box

A Black@Apex event participant shares her experience as the only Black woman in her office, explaining that she takes pride in being an advocate and helping educate others, but it also places her in a box as she cannot be the singular voice for all Black women. Someone else expresses similar feelings about feeling pigeonholed when singled out as the sole Black person in the office.

Mandy Bynum McLaughlin, co-founder and CEO of the Race Equ(al)ity Project, which advances racial equality through education and data insights, was recently quoted as saying: “For Black women, there is a felt responsibility to be the voice for everyone, because they are a minority representation, which, when added to the emotions felt from simply being in a majority male and/or white room and holding our own, is a lot to take on.”

Rethink Assumptions

To combat biases, the group discusses the importance of seeing colleagues and employees as singular people and accepting who they are instead of making assumptions.

It’s crucial to remember that Black people, especially Black women, aren't a monolith; each employee is an individual with his or her own unique experiences. One person does not represent an entire race.

It Takes Time and Effort

Job seekers, employees, and organizations should recognize that there is no quick fix to combating biases. A Society for Human Resource Management article states: “Unconscious bias creeps into every workplace decision related to interviewing, hiring, retaining, rewarding, and promoting talent. Yet companies too often try to address it in one or two hours of training.”

Recognize that changes won’t be made overnight, but don’t let that prevent you from trying to develop a more inclusive environment.

Uplifting Employees

Combating biased perceptions in the workplace is an ongoing battle. The hope is that we are moving closer toward a future where everyone will recognize one another as individuals who deserve respect in and outside of the workplace.

Black@Apex will continue hosting events to combat biases and foster a safe space for employees. By sharing their experiences, creating a platform for honest discussions, and educating Apex staff, the members help create a more inclusive workplace for all.