Nationality as an unconscious bias

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This winter when he was coming back from the holiday travel, one Western European customs officer told him at the border “Come on, show me your return ticket and the money, and hurry up, this is not Russia, you know“ referring to his blond hair, physiognomy, and Russian-sound name and surname. When he put his German documents on the desk counter, the customs officer returned all his papers easily with a smile and nice goodbye wishes. For him, he said, this kind of bias was clearly unethical and wrong. He was both sad and mad.

Going deeper with the story, within everyday life, we concluded the workplace is one of the most prominent areas of life where bias can play out. And, based on research and facts, one of the strongest biases we have in the workplace is gender bias. But do we see everything else? Most of the managers in international companies are the kind of person who thinks that most bias stereotypes do not come from a place of bad intent. It could be just an unconscious stereotype that’s been formed in our brains through time and different influences we very often had no control over.

Working in an international company that is providing continuous education and training on different topics, our interviewee recently jumped into training, which tackled unconscious biases in the workplace. A lot of questions popped up in his mind, he said, and he started to ask questions around. In this South-Eastern European region, somewhere in the corner of one of the areas which his company is covering, his colleagues are asking themselves where can they professionally go beyond the country or the region, have they absorbed great cultural values their company brought and is it okay to say that they really breathe in the rhythm of the cool company they all want to be. “We are in a good way, but not there yet,“ he said.

He took small research among his peers in other international companies too. They bluntly told him: “There is a huge difference! Culture of the company should be planted successfully as in the HQ, but, you know, we still live in South-Eastern Europe.”

They told him that the reason for the obvious differences in the company`s culture is very simple – humanity is still following so many stereotypes, which are connected with national origin and ethnicity too.

Of course, working in a bubble of the western company, people are overcoming such stereotypes more successfully than elsewhere but still fighting. Even if we hear “I know that YOU don’t fit this stereotype about an ex-communist country or an ex imperial colony,“ we still have South-Eastern European names that cannot help us to be easily hired and accepted to any of our western markets, no matter if it’s the company we are working for or any other commercial entity which is of a western origin.

“I heard from many of my colleagues and peers from other companies that they can be part of the working force or middle management, but they cannot expect to become a member of the upper-level management in some international corporation easily,“ our interviewee is saying and add “Ha, how weird – international, but still taking care of national?“


Simply, we concluded together, it is not easy to be Greek, Maltese, Albanian, Bosnian, Ukrainian, no matter if you have more than one University diploma, MBA, or even Ph.D. Our surnames are simply not the best recommendation if you are a manager and not a young programmer or data scientist.

At some point, he said he was thinking of changing his name, too. It was sad thinking that some alias could be much appreciated to go along with the CV than his own name. “To be more successful as an architect and interior designer in Amsterdam or London, a friend of mine changed his surname to a western one. His original one wasn`t an easy-going business recommendation,“ he continues.

Are we lazy? Bad educated? Corrupted? Communists? Too much mixed with Turkish or Arabian people? Are we “against“ the West? If the customs officer is allowed to be on that level of stereotype, should we, educated people from the global environment, be at the same level of (un)conscious?

Isn’t it of vital importance to educate our teams about unconscious bias, because it is real, it is ubiquitous, and it is addressable?

Is it an unconscious bias if some western manager comes to south-eastern country and treats the team members as they are servants, no matter their role, experience, and education? We’ve heard such stories in many companies. We’ve heard western managers are seen as more suitable to lead a team in south-eastern countries, and even they do not know the mentality, the language, or the local market at all.

If it is going to be left unaddressed, international companies risk negligible decision-making that undermines performance, and that harms real people, taking their nationality or ethnicity before their professional expertise. „More than other topics related to diversity and inclusion – I felt bigger discomfort of my colleagues when we discussed ethnicity and nationality rather than gender, sexuality, age, or even race as unconscious bias,“ we heard during this conversation.

Thus, this could be only one of the proposals to start discussing if we value western managers more than the eastern ones. And, more importantly, we need to answer – why? Is it because West thinks South and East are poor, slowly developing markets, and all those conditions are caused by the low level of intelligence or knowledge or, simply, by the overall mentality? Well, there is something in mentality for sure, but aren’t we conscious enough to not take that as a general evaluation ground?

Did you know that Nikola Tesla, whose work was a ground foundation for the technology that shapes the world we live in, invented more than 300 patents worldwide? Nikola was born in present-day Croatia to Serbian parents. The “famous“ western scientist stole some of his most significant inventions. Poor and reclusive, Nikola Tesla died on January 7, 1943.

Whether we are aware of it or not, every one of these biases will affect someone`s career, development, relationships, and ultimately entire life. Let`s try with the first step, which is quite simple – make the unconscious conscious. By acknowledging the different unconscious biases, we can start to address them more successfully and to learn how to avoid them.

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