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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

Protecting The Bias Interrupters

I was riding down the elevator after leading a workshop last week when a participant asked me a question that surprised me. Not because of the question—it’s a familiar one, worth asking—but because of who was asking it.

She was following up on a case study from the workshop, about a hypothetical client who created a hostile environment for an employee. A member of the client’s team made a homophobic comment, suggesting that a male employee who was gay wouldn’t be “tough enough” for an assignment. 

The participant asked me the questions that we had discussed as a group: when is it okay to say something when a client shows bias or hostility? And what can you say when your employer’s business outcomes may be at stake? 

These are the same fundamentals everyone grapples with in a situation like this. What struck me was that this participant was a young Black woman. 

Speaking up against bias is easier for some than for others.

The ramifications of speaking up are very different for her than for someone else.

Straight white cisgender men, for instance, may find a client annoying, but they're not likely to be worried about sexual or racial harassment themselves. This participant could be the target of any of those things.

And if she says something to point out a problem with a client, her perceptions are more likely to be second-guessed because of biases people frequently have about race and gender.

She knew I would see all that, as a Black woman myself.

As I looked at her, remembering how it feels to carry these extra risks, particularly as a junior employee, the first thing I said was, “I’m impressed that you’re willing to say anything.”

Of course, employers vary. Fortunately, the leadership of the organization where this woman works prioritizes protecting employees, whether they are onsite or with an outside client. They have made clear that the company would go as far as firing a client if an incident were egregious or if they couldn’t resolve a situation. 

But a lot of employers would not. It’s easier (though rarely easy) to call in a peer. It’s harder with a boss, and harder still with a client or customer. The financial stakes are higher. The approach would need to be more delicate.

On top of that, when the person doing the interrupting brings one or more marginalized identities, they have to weigh the cost of extra stress and energy—it takes a toll. 

The elevator ride wasn’t long enough to deeply probe the challenge with this brave participant. But the moment stuck with me.

It’s a reminder that we don’t all bear this burden evenly; some people face bias and harassment situations more than others. 

To be supportive of all employees, make sure you give particular consideration to those with marginalized identities. They are brave enough to speak up in spite of the personal risk.

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