Alice, a colleague in your department, directed another client to you this morning.

Normally, you would be happy, but because it’s Alice, you feel uneasy. 

After asking the client what kind of help they needed, Alice could easily have helped them since their issue aligns with what she’s good at. But she didn’t give the client a second look before directing them to speak with you.

Last month, something similar happened. A disheveled man showed up to a meeting with Alice. You could tell by Alice’s facial expressions that she wanted nothing to do with him. 

Sure enough, she made up an excuse and passed on the opportunity to work with him.

Later, she came up to you and joked, “Do I look like a charity worker? I don’t know what it is about me, but I seem to attract all the lost causes. It’s so tiring. I’m like, come back when you get a job!”

You’re shocked that Alice is so blatant about her prejudice toward people with lower socioeconomic status. Today you decide to take her to lunch to talk to her about it. The conversation gets going, and you ease into the topic.

What Happened?

Alice laughs off your comment, and changes the subject to something else.

You worry that you’ve made light of the situation. But you feel good that you’re being an active bystander and using humour to get your point across.

What Happened?

You can tell that by stating your discomfort, Alice feels responsible and guilty.

Although Alice is resistant to continuing the conversation, she does vow to try not to act so ‘offensively’ around you anymore. You’re relieved to hear that she will be more aware of it in the future.

What Happened?

In response to your questions, Alice reveals that she’s uncomfortable around people experiencing poverty. She’s mostly afraid of saying the wrong thing, and worries she can’t hide her discomfort from her face. You aren’t really sure how to respond. But you hope that talking about it motivates Alice to change.

The Best Option

Here’s Why

In 1989, a psychology professor Patricia Devine changed the way many thought about prejudice and stereotyping. 

She introduced the concept of the “prejudice habit”: the idea that stereotypes develop through socialization. Over time, the stereotypes become deeply ingrained “automatic processes” which makes them hard for us to detect.

Break the prejudice habit in three steps

  1. Become aware of the situations that activate bias.
  2. Find the motivation to change the ‘automatic’ behaviours.
  3. Replace the biased response.

When you practice this process, you can see long-term changes in the behaviours, knowledge and beliefs that create the prejudicial habit.

Open questions will help Alice build awareness of her biases and the contexts that trigger them: the first step to habit change.

Go Deeper

Forscher, P. S., Mitamura, C., Dix, E. L., Cox, W. T., & Devine, P. G. (2017). Breaking the prejudice habit: Mechanisms, timecourse, and longevity. Journal of experimental social psychology, 72, 133-146.

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