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SHRM board member David Windley discusses how unconscious bias can derail workplace diversity efforts.
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LAS VEGAS—Diversity needs a new language and approach, Joe Gerstandt,
speaker and author with Talent Anarchy, told a concurrent session, “The
Future of Diversity and Inclusion: Five Next Practices,” on June 30,
2015, at the Society for Human Resource Management 2015 Annual
Conference & Exposition.
He said the future of diversity should include:
Most diversity policies are just silly, according to Gerstandt. They
are so long no one in the company can be expected to remember, much less
understand, what they mean.
Keep it simple, he recommended. The policy should be concise enough
that, if asked what diversity means to the company, anyone in the
organization can respond with a consistent answer. Gerstandt recommended
that the policy statement be kept to one sentence, and declares that
employees can both fit in and be unique. “When you deliver both, that’s
inclusion,” he remarked.
Instead, what companies most often have is assimilation, Gerstandt
said. Assimilation is “not always bad,” but doesn’t need to be advocated
for within the organization, as managers already will pressure
employees to assimilate.
But diversity does need an advocate, he noted, and that advocate is HR.
Employees also need to feel that it is safe to be their authentic
selves at work, according to Gerstandt. He told about a nurse who took
care of the dying who listed the most common regrets patients had.
And what topped the list? The patients wished they’d had the courage
to be true to themselves and had not tried to be what others expected of
Stifling authenticity isn’t just a sad way to live, it’s bad for business, he added, citing a March 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “Fear of Being Different Stifles Talent.”
“Not letting it be safe to be different at work has consequences in
performance,” Gerstandt remarked, saying this translates into diminished
Provide employees with a variety of ways to contribute and reward
initiative and risk-taking, he recommended. Invite more authenticity
into the organization. But this won’t happen immediately, he cautioned,
because at first workers won’t trust the employer.
The workplace also needs to welcome respectful differences of opinion in decision-making, he added.
Gerstandt quoted General George S. Patton, who said, “If everyone is thinking the same thing, someone isn’t thinking at all.”
Agreement can be as dysfunctional as disagreement, Gerstandt added.
It can reflect a culture that’s focused on conflict avoidance and the
dishonesty of employees always agreeing at meetings.
From day one, he said, employees should be told how decision-making
is conducted, and that respectful disagreement is promoted and rewarded.
“Informal networks are a really important part of an organization,
but you can’t see them,” Gerstandt said. Organizational charts tell us
only so much. He said such charts are comparable to a heart rate
measurement, which tells one thing, but is nothing like an X-ray.
Gerstandt has taken a closer look at organizations’ informal
networks. He consulted with a university where the male professors
stayed forever but the female professors would typically leave early in
their careers. He mapped the network of informal relationships to see
what they looked like and sorted them by gender. Every man was more
well-connected than the women were. After the university became more
intentional about informal networks, the retention of women improved.
Informal relationships within an organization need to be prioritized,
he said, recommending that employers “make social time and space” and
“make deliberate efforts to build bridges.”
Some may think this isn’t work-related, but Gerstandt said it’s
“incredibly work-related,” as employees “need trust to feel like they
can talk with each other.”
Gerstandt said that sometimes when people find out he is a diversity
consultant they ask, “Shouldn’t there just be the best person for the
Absolutely, Gerstandt answers.
But decision-makers’ choices are riddled with bias. He said HR should
help organizations become more aware of people’s natural tendency to
have unconscious bias.
Why else would each inch of height translate into an additional
$1,000 a year for men? And fewer than 15 percent of American men are
over 6 feet tall, but almost 60 percent of corporate CEOs are over 6
“We need to change our relationship with the word ‘bias,’ ” he said.
It shouldn’t be associated with bad people, he explained. It’s a part of
human nature, as people are hard-wired to react to the fast part of
their brains, needed for quick escapes, by making split-second decisions
based on little information. It’s not terribly accurate, but the slow
part of the brain—the part that analyzes—is typically much more
accurate. Take the time and energy to make sure managers are using the
slow part of the brain for decision-making in the workplace, not the
stereotyping fast part, he recommended.
In sum, Gerstandt encouraged conference attendees to educate
themselves about hidden bias, remarking, “If you do not intentionally
include, you will unintentionally exclude.”
Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor.
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