Address the Small Infractions to Create an Inclusive Culture

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek June 8, 2018
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"Mum, am I a monster?"

John Amaechi remembers confronting his mother at age 11 after reading The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The classic story of the outcast Quasimodo resonated with the chubby black child whose girth was three times the size of his classmates' and who was as tall as his teachers. He recalls waiting at the bus stop, where adults and other children shied away from him, opting to wait at another stop or miss the bus rather than ride with him to school.

It became clear to him that while his mother saw him as her clever boy, others did not. He was feared, mocked or treated as a source of curiosity. The young man from a working-class English family later became an NBA player who kept his homosexuality closeted during his basketball career until three years after retiring from professional sports.

Amaechi knows what it feels like to be different from others. But he has no patience with unconscious-bias training―the concept of raising awareness of ingrained biases and personal blind spots. To him, bias is all too real, and people are aware of their biases. Starbucks recently shut down its 8,000 U.S. stores for half a day to train its workers about implicit—or unconscious—bias.

"Unconscious bias … is a lie of convenience" and "a concept that is deeply flawed," because it's not truly unconscious, said Amaechi, who called the Starbucks training a publicity stunt and an episodic intervention that does not deal with systemic bias. His talk was part of a series of discussions about creating a high-performance culture for employees at RedPeg, an Alexandria, Va.-based marketing company.

The psychologist, best-selling author and chief executive officer of a London-based consultancy pointed to research identifying stereotypes that often show up in word associations. For example, words such as "trouble," "criminal," "lazy," "angry" and "aggressive" are among those negatively associated with black people, he said. 

"If you can access [those words so quickly], it's not unconscious." Identity associations influence decisions such as hiring and promotions, he noted. If women in general are viewed as emotional, timid and weak, for example, "how could [they] possibly be [put] in charge?"

Breaking down stereotypes and changing culture requires vigilance, he said, and he offered the following advice for creating an inclusive work environment.

Address the Small Infractions 

Awareness of bias should be coupled with action. Often that means responding to the small, everyday workplace behaviors such as subtle aggressions, exclusionary behavior and the systemic undermining of others.  

"Leadership is in the minutiae; it's in the mundane," Amaechi said. He suggested induction training so that employees understand that "this is how we treat each other. Here are a set of behaviors we endorse, embrace and encourage, and here is what we do not tolerate."

That behavior must be demonstrated by leaders—starting with first-line managers.

"By policing the smaller infractions, leaders reduce the likelihood of egregious infractions, with the added benefit that any remotely serious infractions become so obvious as to mandate investigation."

External communications should match employees' internal experiences. If an organization is not vigilant in practicing the values it says it claims are important, he said, those values become meaningless.

"You want to make a difference in culture; you have to deal with the little stuff. It's the tiny stuff that we have real control over."

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Develop a Diversity and Inclusion Initiative]

Avoid Hiring for Fit 

The concept of "fit" often becomes a tiebreaker that has no objective criteria and is used to give preference to the person who makes the hiring manager or organization more comfortable, Amaechi said. For example, opting to employ the extrovert over the introvert because others at the organization are extroverts is faulty logic. The introverted person may bring a perspective to a team that otherwise is lacking, he noted.

Organizations can define their cultural values and use that information when hiring so decisions are based on objective assessments.

Amaechi also said it's not enough to hire for diversity if different viewpoints are not encouraged. Inclusion involves "lots more noise, lots more disagreement, lots more conflict, although conflict is not necessarily bad. Movement without friction is impossible."

Practice the Collegial Contract 

Amaechi recalled seeing coaches at a community center use the "hand on" tactic during tense encounters. One coach walked over to a colleague who had lost his temper and was yelling at a young basketball player. The first coach placed his hand on his colleague's shoulder in an agreed-upon signal to calm down.

Afterward, there was a follow-up conversation between the two coaches. The first coach apologized for interrupting but explained the impact he'd seen of the other coach's behavior on the child. The second coach thanked his colleague and explained his behavior. It is a simple approach, Amaechi said, that creates an environment of accountability.

The approach appeals to Fredda Hurwitz, RedPeg chief strategy and marketing officer.

"It's a subtle, humane way of saying, 'This isn't how we should be acting,' " she said after the presentation. Amaechi's talk, she noted, "made people think. I saw it in everyone's eyes." 

The 23-year-old company employs about 60 people.

"We are going through healthy change" that includes opening new offices by the end of the year "and both need and want to do things differently," she said. The company also plans to add what she called "diverse new talent that will really help broaden our teams' skill sets."

All of this has led to more of a focus on the company's values and strengthening its culture, she said, noting that she hopes Amaechi's presentation will lead to more open, authentic conversations. 

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