How to React to Biased Comments

Even if someone in your Procurement team made them, what’s the best approach to dealing with comments and asides weighted with unconscious bias?

The thing about unconscious bias is this: most of the time, people aren’t trying to be biased. However, that doesn’t mean that someone’s comments aren’t going to have an impact on those around them.

When it comes to gender, biased comments can be overt and discriminatory (for example, the assertion that ‘all women in procurement leadership have these kinds of issues), to the more subtle (for example, a stakeholder assuming you’re an analyst, not an executive, because you look young).

In a way, the subtle comments – those that may come from an unconscious bias that the commenter may not even be aware of themselves – can be the most frustrating, especially if they come from someone in your procurement team or an important internal stakeholder. 

When you hear them, you might think ‘Wait, what just happened?”, followed by ‘Is it really that big of a deal? Is it worth rocking the boat over?’. And given the importance of stakeholder management in procurement, these are legitimate questions to ask. 

However, the standard you walk past is the standard you accept, so it is important to do something. 

Here is how to best react to biased comments: 

Figure out if the comment is a one-off or part of a pattern, and react accordingly 

Biased comments can occur as part of a once-off, or they can form part of a broader pattern. If it’s the latter, it’s likely that they will affect your relationship with that person, so it’s important to tread carefully. 

Firstly, though, if a biased comment was a one-off: have a conversation with the person where you recount what was said. 

If it isn’t a once-off, though, ensure that you gather appropriate information about the incidents, including what was said and when. 

If you need to have a more serious conversation about how someone’s behaviour is affecting you and your relationship with them, it’s important to have ample evidence of the same. 

Know your goal and keep it factual 

Given the importance of relationships in procurement, before you approach anyone about a comment or comments that they have made, it’s important that you know your goal. 

Ideally, this goal would be an apology and for the behaviour to stop. If punishment is your goal, prepare that the conversation might not go well and, after all, it may not be your place to ‘punish’ a stakeholder. 

When discussing the bias with someone else, make sure you keep things factual. 

For example, saying something along the lines of, ‘Your comment about women in leadership was sexist and abhorrent’ is likely to ruffle feathers, and not in a good way. 

A better way to approach the conversation is without accusations and judgement. Instead of the above comment, consider saying instead ‘Last Wednesday, you said that women in procurement all have the same kind of issues. I’d like to discuss that in a bit more detail.” 

Recognise the ‘unconscious’ in bias

Even if you are frustrated, abhorred or downright in a rage over someone’s comment, the issue is that the person simply may not know that they’ve been biased. 

As such, it’s important to take a step back and recognise the ‘unconscious’ part of the bias. 

Unfamiliar with unconscious bias? Unconscious biases are learned assumptions, beliefs, or attitudes that we aren’t necessarily aware of. While bias is a normal part of human brain function, it can often reinforce stereotypes. Whether we realise it or not, our unconscious biases influence our professional lives, from the way we think to the way we interact with colleagues. They act like mental shortcuts that work to speed up decision-making – though more often than not in a negative way.

It is challenging to describe biased comments without making others feel as if they are under attack. However, do your best to try to make the conversation ‘safe’ for them by saying things such as, ‘With your comment last week about women in procurement, I acknowledge that you may not realise how it came across, but it made me feel uncomfortable because…‘ 

If it’s an unconscious bias you are up against, sometimes education – understanding how and why someone might inherently believe the things they do – is the best place to start.

Have you ever been the recipient of a biased comment? How have you dealt with it? What has worked and what hasn’t? Let us know in the comments below.