Subtle Bias from Grade School to the Workplace

I grew up with Luis in Pittsburgh. We reconnected after he read my recent blog about learning grammar in the sixth grade. We exchanged a few Facebook messages. Then he called me. We had not spoken for several years and have seen each other just once since we graduated from high school, a long time ago.  Luis and I were in the same homeroom and took all the same classes for eight years. We belonged to Cub Scout Den 5, hung out at each others’ homes and did projects together. We had a strong friendship. He was and is artistic, smart and funny. During our recent conversation, we told each other old stories for an hour. I learned a lot from Luis then and as we talked now.

While I recalled several teachers with warmth and appreciation, he remembered them with resentment and alienation based on events I had either not known about or whose impact I had not understood.  I thought we had the same grade school experiences, when really we had not.  Now, I see he received the kind of treatment, “subtle” bias, which is likely tied to a proportion of the rising charges of discrimination just reported by the EEOC.

Until I entered high school, I was in the religious majority.  My relatives came from Eastern Europe, his from Bolivia.  His ethnicity and beliefs were in the “minority”.  I  remember that we talked about our separate heritages; to us, it was interesting but seemed about as significant as the fact that we grew up on different streets.  Several of our classmates, their families and even our teachers didn’t see it that way.  Luis recalls not being invited back to some homes when parents found out he was not of their faith. They didn’t say that to him, but the pattern repeated itself several times affecting him but not others.  Some classmates had bar mitzvahs and invited all of us, but not Luis.

On an eighth grade field trip to Gettysburg, one teacher singled him out for punishment when he sat atop a Civil War cannon right next to another classmate, Daniel, who jumped on right before he did.  Luis got in trouble and Daniel did not.  The teacher and Daniel, but not Luis, shared the same faith. Luis recalled an insensitive religious comment the teacher had made at roughly the same time.  I listened now as a friend and also as a lawyer thinking–disparate treatment–that’s what that was before the legal term had been coined.

There were a few other examples that were nothing as blatant as an outright ethnic slur or joke, at least nothing that Luis told me in our conversation. Walking back and forth to school, we shared confidences, a few of which we dredged up and laughed about when we spoke. But we had never discussed how separate and alone he must have felt.  And, I never appreciated that the teachers I thought were terrific may have played religious favorites.  My memories and thoughts about them changed quickly following our recent conversation.  I see them differently now linking my pleasant experiences with my friend’s hurtful ones.  In particular, one eighth grade teacher is diminished in my thoughts.

In our workplaces, we’ve eliminated a lot of the blatant behaviors which spawned the Civil Rights movement that Luis and I witnessed as we grew up. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think we’ve rooted out less obvious but frequent daily actions and exclusions which derive from discriminatory motives.  Some are unconscious; others, not directly expressed.  We’re worsening the delusion by denying that they leave scars that last and taint relationships, whether we are plodding through grammar school or at work in adulthood. We can exclude others for many reasons – sometimes it’s due to race, sex, ethnicity or sexual orientation, just to name a few. The conduct is often subtle and can be missed by others who are not similarly affected.

But the legacy is pain and isolation.  In our workplaces, now in 2012, we’re making a huge mistake if we focus only on outrageous actions without addressing so-called  “grey” areas whose impact is brutal and lasting.  While EEOC charges are soaring, findings of discrimination are not. There may be many reasons, but I wonder if many are not the result of the kind of behaviors that Luis experienced which escaped the notice of even a close friend.

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc., which provides ethics and compliance training that helps many of the world’s leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces. Mr. Paskoff can be contacted at

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