Uncovering Disability Bias In the Modern Workplace

7 months ago Dan Robertson

Disability Bias In The Modern Workplace

For over two decades I have been researching and speaking about the effects of (conscious and unconscious) bias on human interactions, behaviours and decision-making. More so, psychologists and behaviour scientists have been investigating the types of interventions that reduce bias thinking and behaviours. A critical intention on prejudice reduction is known as the ‘contact hypotheses’. Put simply, the contact hypotheses is based on the notion that, under specific situations, inter-group contact can reduce bias thinking and behaviours. The great social psychologist Gordon Allport, in his 1954 classic, The Nature of Prejudice, suggested that interpersonal contact could be one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members.

The London Paralympic Game 2012

The Paralympic Games 2012, was one of the greatest social moments in UK television history. It was an explosion of talent historically unseen and grossly under-represented by television broadcasters. Watching, and thinking about the contact hypotheses, I asked myself a very simple, but fundamental question – Could this repeated exposure of positive disabled role models – Olympic athletes, be enough to change our conscious and unconscious associations of disabled people? At the time, unfortunately, it was impossible to answer the question, as we simply didn’t have the data. Fast forward to 2014, when I was the Consulting Director at the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion, knowing through my teams’ work with clients, that we had a new data set, I commissioned a major study to investigate what we now call the ‘Paralympic Effect’ on bias.

Immediately after the Paralympic Games, a poll conducted by Mori suggested that 81% of British adults said that the Paralympic Games 2012 had a positive impact on the way disabled people are viewed by the public. A further study by the not-for-profit United Response, suggested that nearly 50% of people interviewed said that they found the Paralympic athletes more inspirational than their Olympic counterparts. Finally, a UK Government study showed that in the first quarter of 2014, 68% of people felt the general public’s attitude towards disabled people had improved since the Paralympic Games in 2012.

Without question social attitudes had shifted! At least at the conscious level. But could we measure what was going on at the unconscious level – the level, according to behavioural scientists such as Danial Kahneman, that ultimately drives human behaviour?

Using Implicitly® the unconscious bias test – we analysed level of bias against individuals with visible impairments (unfortunately the test is unable to measure learning impairments and mental health), and compared these levels of bias to those on the basis of gender and ethnicity.

The study analysed the test results of 9,448 valid test scores from a 40-month period across 2010-2011 and 2013-2014. We specifically excluded 2012, which was the period of the London Paralympics and the increased media coverage.

The results.

The results were startling. While we clearly have seen a positive shift in conscious attitudes, amongst the general public, toward individuals with visible impairments, the results of our study suggested that rather than the Paralympic Games leading to a decrease in unconscious bias, levels of bias at the unconscious level actually increased slightly.

On the surface the results made no sense. Why should this be? A possible explanation (considering test takers were professionals within organisations), is that many workers are exposed to what they perceive as negative experiences of disabled people. No matter how well intentioned, positive action interventions, may support (at the unconscious level) negative associations being created or reinforced. For example, in a selection context the ‘guaranteed interview scheme’ might project negative associations between people with disabilities and competence. At work, the effort required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ may lead to managers associating disability with additional effort or anxiety, which can trigger bias.

Interestingly, research from Scope, showed that 22% of disabled people were of the opinion that people’s attitudes towards them as disabled people have worsened following the 2012 Paralympian Games.

The wider legacy effects of disability bias - the power of Stigma as a force for bias decision-making.

Erving Goffman, one of the greatest social psychologists of the twentieth century, has shown how stigma works through a process of labelling which seeks to attribute negative associations which in turn discredits a person or group. Today stigma affects disabled people in many aspects of their lives – work being a key one. Here disabled people face discrimination when trying to access work and also in-work bias.

Covering at work

As well as identifying the role of stigma as a form of power designed to ensure individuals conform to social and organisational norms, Goffman also identified what he termed ‘covering’ – the strategy many of us take to conceal something about us that we feel ashamed of because of the stigma others attach to one or more aspects of our identity.

In Uncovering Talent: A New Model for Inclusion, by Deloitte University the authors identify 4 types of covering at work:

1. Appearance

Covering up aspects of ones’ appearance, including attire and mannerisms. For example, hidden or playing down a physical impairment.

2. Affiliation-based covering

Not talking about one’s identity or not wanting to support related work events or talks for fear of being outed as disabled.

3. Advocacy-based covering

Not wanted to be an advocate for, or sticking up for your group’s issues or colleagues. This results in down-playing their own condition. For instance, disabled colleagues not championing disability rights events.

4. Association-based covering

For instance, not wanting to attend employee network groups for fear of being exposed and discriminated against. Or people with disabilities, not wanting to attend networking events or being part of a workshop panel on such issues.

In many ways, I see covering as a form of Stereotype Threat, as identified by the great African-American social psychologist Claude Steele. Stereotype Threat is the phenomenon by which individuals feel that they may be at risk of conforming to a negative stereotype relating to a social group of which they are a member – disabled people.

5 ways in which Stigma leads to disabled discrimination

Like Stereotype Threat, which has shown to have a negative impact on the performance of negatively stereotyped groups, stigma and covering affect disabled individuals in the following ways:

  1. Employers refusing to hire someone because they have an impairment

  2. Not being assigned to a project team due to benevolent bias

  3. Negative assumptions about work commitment which in turn impacts career planning conversations

  4. Being gossiped about by co-workers

  5. Exclusion from conversations and workplace social events

The consequences of such biases and discrimination lead to an increase in stress and a decrease in emotional well-being, together with the withdrawal from work colleagues. Confirmation bias is then used by colleagues and managers to justify further criticism and exclusion of disabled workers.

5 ways to challenge disability bias at work

  1. Be less judgemental: We all have biases, but actively working towards mitigating these is a fundamental principle of workplace inclusion

  2. Go out of your way to get to know disabled people on an individual level – this helps to reduce bias and stigma by breaking down the stereotypes which facilitates such thinking

  3. Don’t contribute to office gossip and make it safe to challenge others who do

  4. Be consistent in work allocation decisions

  5. Create a set of team rituals with are designed to foster group connectivity

Dan is highly respected as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity & inclusion, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. Contact Dan to find out how you can mitigate bias in your organisation.

E dan@vercidaconsulting.com W www.vercidaconsulting.com