Managers running scared of getting to know their staff


A new study by the Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion (enei) suggests that the politically correct climate inside well-intentioned companies may actually be damaging their business. Sponsored by BT, the research on unconscious bias and staff / manager relationships showed that managers were often anxious about having conversations with employees that involved talking about their differences. Staff members were also anxious about saying the wrong thing to their colleagues and causing offence. This lack of openness leads to misunderstandings and anxiety which, in turn, is shown to have a damaging effect on working relationships which are so critical to business success.

One of the key findings is that this anxiety, or the concern about causing offence leads to ‘social distancing’ behaviours between managers and staff members. This is seen to have a negative impact on businesses as employees, and the individuals they report to, often fail to capitalise on more informal relationships within the workplace.

The research also shows that managers and staff often have a ‘bias blind spot’ where they assume they are treating everyone the same, but in fact are favouring people who look or sound most like them. It found that managers often develop better informal relationships with staff members that were more similar to them and that those staff members enjoy better ‘sponsorship’ within their companies.

Dan Robertson, enei’s diversity & inclusion director said: “We have known for some time that making people anxious about what they can ask their colleagues actually increases the chances of any biases playing out as behaviour in the workplace. Our study says that the culture inside organisations of not mentioning the ways in which we differ for fear of saying the wrong thing actually has the opposite effect. It leaves people confused and anxious, but also creates social distance between staff. We also know that the closeness of working relationships between managers and their staff predicts employee performance.”

The findings suggest that managers try to treat everyone the same and ignore differences such as sex, race, religion, sexuality and bodyweight. However, in reality, more than one in five have biases which were operating unseen and unintentionally, below the fairness radar of managers.

Caroline Waters OBE, Director, People and Policy for BT says: “Inclusion is not about treating people the same, but about embracing, celebrating and learning from the differences between us and responding to these in a way that ensures our society benefits from our combined abilities. It is important to recognise that we all have biases but not to let them, or our fear of causing offence, get in the way of relationships at work. If we do, we miss the opportunity to enrich our lives and bring success to our businesses through understanding diversity.”