The Biased Manager

by  Leigh Steere  |  Workplace Issues
The Biased Manager

Do you think you are open-minded, unbiased, and free of racism? Let me challenge you. It is human nature to categorize people.

This person is like me; that person is different from me. Committed to the job, not committed. High potential, less potential. Smart, not smart. Fit, not in shape. Beautiful, plain, ugly. Cultured, not cultured. Groomed well, not so well.

From a top school, from a lesser school. Rich, middle class, poor. Young, old. Childish, mature. Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, Caucasian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, mixed, can’t tell. The list of distinctions is infinite.

How do our classifications play out in the workplace?

Here are a few examples:

  • She’s available for travel. Give the project to her.
  • We need a “J” for this role. I will never hire a “P” again.
  • He’s in accounting. I wouldn’t put anyone from that department in a trade show booth.
  • She’s too young for this opportunity. Give it to someone more seasoned.
  • He’s black. I think he’ll do better in the Southside sales territory than he will up here where the clients are mostly white.
  • She just had a baby. I don’t think she’s the right person for a big project like this.
  • This account needs to be handled by someone in the office, not a telecommuter.

In the example above, the speaker assumes certain differences between in-office and remote workers—stereotypes. Then these perceived differences influence which employee is considered for the account.

An article on social psychology says we have:

“A collection of beliefs and assumptions about how certain traits are linked to other characteristics and behaviors. For example, if you learn that a new co-worker is very happy, you might immediately assume that she is also friendly, kind, and generous. These assumptions help people make judgments quickly, but they can also contribute to stereotyping and errors.”

Next time you are making a people management decision, stop and take a critical look at how biases may be informing your choices.

What errors are you making? How are you limiting yourself, your company, and your employees with your categorizations? Have you denied an opportunity to a person because of color, parenting status, appearance, educational background or other factors, due to unconscious assumptions about capability, availability, or commitment?

What kinds of subtle or overt workplace bias have you witnessed?
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

About The Author

Articles By leigh-steere
Leigh Steere is a researcher, product developer, and adviser in the field of people management. She writes on fostering creativity, employee engagement, and high performance in the workplace. Visit for a free assessment of your management style and tips for managing more effectively.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Paula Kiger (Big Green Pen)  |  22 Dec 2014  |  Reply

Leigh, I really appreciated the examples you shared (because I think they went beyond what we typically think of when considering bias). The accountant in the trade show booth, for example. I can see why a period in the trade show booth would give the accountant a GREAT window into the energy of the potential customers, and (s)he may have an angle to share that a typical “sales” person wouldn’t. Great post.

Mike Henry  |  22 Dec 2014  |  Reply

Leigh, I appreciate a post that challenges. Thanks. I’ll be paying attention to my biases for the next few days (or however long I can stand it), but the first thoughts I had were that I try to make sure and judge individuals. I think it’s wrong to judge an individual based on the behavior of someone else. But I only have the individual’s behavior upon which to make the judgments necessary for my job.

So, I’m curious where the line is regarding bias. If I’m reasonably confident that someone will be challenged with a particular task because of past experience, my job performance will come into question if I choose to offer that task to that individual against my better judgment. I can never know for sure if one person on a team would be better for a task than another person. So how do I make the decision, get the work done, and honor the commitment I made to my boss?


Leigh Steere  |  06 Jan 2015  |  Reply

Mike, I agree that decision-making needs to take into account an individual’s actual performance. When performance falls short, it’s time for a frank conversation — regardless of a person’s gender, color, religion, etc.

Too often, I see bias — not just in who gets the plum opportunities, but also in who gets the performance conversations. For example, some managers turn a blind eye to cussing or bullying when the offender is the top salesperson.

Sometimes the right decision means a temporary hit to the team’s performance, with the goal of better long-term performance. For example, if you give a new employee a challenging assignment, it may take the new employee longer than a seasoned employee to complete the work due to the learning curve, but you end up with a better-trained employee who is able to contribute more fully to your team’s results.

Paul LaRue  |  22 Dec 2014  |  Reply

Leigh, this was a well-timed piece. I have recently been thrust into a situation where a hard line has to be drawn regarding some folks (an unenviable task!) and I have to work hard to look beyond the behavior and still love those individuals. All the while making sure I don’t put a negative bias on how I will feel or respond to them when our paths cross again.

We often lump behaviors, physical traits, and personalities together in compartments that “cookie cutter” individuals. It’s our default mechanism, but one we must overcome.

I agree with Mike, thanks for challenging us, encouraging us to become better leaders of character!

Jane  |  22 Dec 2014  |  Reply

Leigh you gave us some excellent examples here. You asked for a few others that aren’t often thought of as bias. Here are a couple I’ve witnessed. 1) Someone who comes in early to make coffee, unload the cups from the dishwasher, and egads! cleans the microwave is not promotable. They are made for menial tasks. 2) Someone who is cheerful and friendly would be good for telephone work. 3) Someone who is super organized and handles their own responsibilities well should be in line for promotion to manager. 4) workers who come in early and leave late are ultra dedicated employees.

Thanks you for opening up these areas where we need to watch for biases and not fall into them.

Leigh Steere  |  06 Jan 2015  |  Reply

Jane, thanks for these additional examples. #4 is particularly vexing. Long hours do not automatically mean dedication or good business results. They can signal inefficiency, disorganization, too many water-cooler conversations, too much Internet surfing, poor business processes, under-staffing, or other problems.

Yet, many organizations continue to perceive a highly efficient worker who delivers great results in a 40-hour week as less dedicated.

John Smith  |  26 Dec 2014  |  Reply

Hi, Leigh – fascinating article:)

This one caught my eye because several of the classes I teach involve creating an understanding of bias and the effects on our behavior. As others have noted, your examples go beyond the usual ones and I appreciate the stimulation to my thinking which has resulted from your writing.

Mike Henry raises a valid point which in my mind speaks to the difference between a bias and an evaluation. Bias most often occurs in the sociological sense when someone holds a position about something or someone without a valid reason to hold that belief.

The idea that younger employees are less dependable comes to mind here. While some young employees are definitely not dependable, others are and many are “sort of”. We do all a disservice when we hold that view and apply it to all.

On the other hand, when we have explicit knowledge about an individual (note I am not saying “group” here) that leads us to consider their abilities or values. The employee who has a pattern of tardiness or calling in “sick” may be viewed as undependable, but no bias exists here …

… unless your biases make you judge certain others more harshly. For example, tThe young employee who looks and sounds like someone from your neighborhood is given the benefit of the doubt, while the young employee from somewhere else is not. This is the basic outline of white privilege and other related issues being discussed elsewhere. I appreciate Mike’s comments in this direction.

Again, nice post, Leigh … you got me thinking:)


Jane Perdue  |  03 Jan 2015  |  Reply

Catching up in reading time lost over the holidays! Good post, Leigh, on a topic that’s near and dear to my heart (writing a book that includes it).

Here are some definitions from Dona Lewandowski in “Understanding and Avoiding Bias and Stereotyping in the Judicial Process,” Institute of Government, April 2007, pp 24-28, that illustrates the distinctions in terminology that’s somewhat similar yet totally different:

“Bias: a tendency to favor or disfavor; a preference.
Stereotype: an oversimplified belief about a personal attribute about a group of people.
Prejudice: negative prejudgment of a group and its members.
Discrimination: unjustifiable negative behavior toward a group or its members; denial of equal rights based on stereotypes and prejudices.”


Leigh Steere  |  06 Jan 2015  |  Reply

Thanks for your comments. You have provided much additional food for thought.

Someone emailed me a question that I wanted to share here: “Is it biased or good thinking to put a black salesperson in front of black customers?”

When a decision involves an employee, I think it’s a good rule of thumb to get the employee’s input.

Each of us is socialized differently. Think of Obama’s girls. They are having a very different experience from inner city students living housing projects…or a Haitian orphan adopted by white parents and attending a suburban U.S. high school. They all have dark skin, but they may have very different ideas about what sales territory feels most comfortable.

Most employees have a sense of their strengths and limitations and will speak up if they have questions about or are uncomfortable with a particular assignment.

Sometimes an employee will ask for an opportunity that, at first blush, seems ill-advised. It helps to remember that most employees want to do a good job. If they are self-advocating for an opportunity, it means they think they can do it.

If you have evidence that suggests they might fall short, then set some criteria for the employees to meet that would let you know when they are ready for the opportunity. “Here’s what I need from you before assigning a project like this” is much more palatable than “No, you are too young for a project like this.”

My greatest professional growth came at moments when managers took a risk and let me spread my wings despite my age, my gender, my height (or lack thereof), or my music history degree.

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