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Amid Social Unrest, Identify Hidden Bias at Work

A group of business people with masks on their faces.

​With social unrest enveloping the country, managers need to do their part to stop and prevent bias in the workplace.

However, many managers may be less than adept at recognizing bias on the job—and they may need to confront their own unconscious bias, which gets in the way of an equitable workplace culture. According to a recent study by Accenture, Getting to Equal 2020: The Hidden Value of Culture Makers, there is "a large gap between what leaders think is going on and what employees say is happening on the ground."

Accenture also states that while leaders think an equitable workplace culture is important, most of them are not prioritizing it. Just 21 percent identify culture as a top priority, and only 23 percent have set a related target or goal. That may be a missed opportunity.
"Besides being the right thing to do, establishing diverse and inclusive workplaces has tremendous business ROI [return on investment]," said Jamie Adasi, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Greenhouse Software in New York City. "According to McKinsey & Co., diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to outperform homogeneous ones. Additionally, Harvard Business Review states that diverse organizations are 70 percent more likely to capture new markets."

Recognizing Signs of Bias on the Job

What can managers do to stop bias in the workplace? A good place to start is accurately defining bias so employers can better recognize and confront it.

Unconscious bias occurs when someone who does not know you makes assumptions about your character, intelligence or capabilities based on how you look, speak or behave. This person does so not realizing that he or she is thinking or reacting this way.

"There are many signs of unconscious and conscious bias happening in the workplace, but particularly across society during this time of societal unrest," said Denise L. Caleb, executive vice president and chief transformation officer at Talent Plus Inc. in Denver. "The signs can be through exclusion, unfair practices, off-color jokes, stereotyping commentary, and just general unfair and unkind treatment of others."

Workplace experts say relying on employee complaints to combat bias, whether conscious or unconscious, is not enough. Plus, the reality is that most employees wouldn't report bias if they saw it.

"Being proactive and pre-emptively diagnosing areas of concern is where the focus should lie," said Janine Yancey, chief executive officer at Emtrain, a San Francisco-based workplace culture training firm. "One of the areas that is most readily identifiable is the 'us versus them' dynamic, which is often fueled by unconscious bias. Sometimes it plays out between management and employees, and other times it's between employees and [their] team members."

An us-versus-them scenario can present itself in subtle ways.

"From employees discussing where a person of color is from because they assume they're foreign born, to groups forming to belittle a co-worker for their ideals and values," Yancey said. "Instead of waiting for a complaint to come—which may never come—it's crucial that management engages with employees on a consistent basis, promotes dialogue and analyzes where any potential 'hot spots' reside." Once those practices are in place, then managers must work to rectify issues via an established unconscious-bias program.

Removing Workplace Bias at the Root

The upside to acting against bias in any form is a happier, inclusive and more productive workforce.

"The goal of most any business is productivity, and that can be supported in many ways," Yancey said. "[In] a diverse and inclusive workforce where an employee's talents, perspectives and strengths are encouraged, better results are typically the outcome. The organizations that encourage a variety of opinions from employees working toward a common goal can result in stronger workplace relationships and more-successful teams."

To prioritize a bias-free workplace, take direct action with these culture-strengthening strategies:

Focus early on the interview process. Many Fortune 500 companies are using some type of selection assessment to combat bias early, but that doesn't mean it's the right course to take.

"There are blatant and subtle biases within interview processes, and they need to be removed," Caleb said. "We often hear applicants making comments that [involve] stereotyping, and these applicants cannot move forward. Organizations need to evaluate applicants for cultural fit, and the organizational culture needs to be one built on inclusiveness of employees."

Be on the lookout for microaggressions. Unconscious bias in the workplace often manifests itself through workplace microaggressions, which are indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.

"Microaggressions are silent killers of morale for team members who are victimized," said Natajia Miller, a diversity consultant and founder of Mind Fro Travel, a Bahamas-based consultancy focused on cultural awareness. "Microaggressions are basically verbal or nonverbal slights discriminating against someone."

Miller said she's been on the receiving end of workplace microaggressions. "I've been a victim of microaggression several times in my career. My most recent affair with microaggression involved a colleague who questioned me wearing my natural Afro hairstyle. In her eyes, as an HR professional, I should make sure my grooming standards are exemplary, and, again in her eyes, my Afro didn't fit that bill."

Miller pointed out that both she and the co-worker actually had the same hairstyle. "We both had a ponytail in our hair, as it naturally grows that way but can look different. Consequently, if my hairstyle didn't fit company grooming, then neither did her hairstyle."

The best way to root out microaggressions is with diversity and inclusion training sessions that provide examples of microaggressions and how management and employees can respond effectively, Miller said.

Address bias immediately. The worst thing a manager can do when bias occurs at the workplace is to sweep it under the rug.

"The manager should use that opportunity to talk to the team about bias in the workplace," Miller said. "They don't have to name names or talk about the specific events, but they should go into detail about how this can affect the victims and why it is not acceptable in the workplace. That makes the person the bias was directed at feel they are cared for and that their issues matter, and it also sends a message to other team members that this company takes bias seriously."
Check in frequently. Adasi suggested conducting "regular inclusion check-ins."
"An inclusion check-in with your employees is the perfect way to say, 'We know where our problems are, we acknowledge them, and we are making changes to do better.' "
Don't downplay the data. Practice the art of active listening, and show your appreciation by implementing workers' feedback into your business and your conduct as a manager.
"Don't bury the results in an e-mail no one has time to read. Instead, share the main points at the beginning of a company meeting," Adasi said. "The manager of each department should share those points with their employees and follow through with creating tangible outcomes to hold the manager and the leadership team accountable."
Establish "confidential reporting." Consider tools that encourage transparency, such as a process for employees to register complaints or suggestions confidentially.
For example, Greenhouse regularly takes surveys to get a pulse on workplace inclusion. Such surveys should break down results by department, Adasi said. "Having information for all your employees is great, but being able to break things down by department will help you pinpoint where you should be focusing your attention in addressing bias issues."

Engage with video training. Emtrain created videos of real-world scenarios showing bias from different perspectives. Then the organization asked employees to share their opinions about what they saw.

"We ask what's really on their minds, and we give them a channel to share it anonymously," Yancey said. "We're also able to share the polling results from their colleagues and from other employees who have taken our training."

At that point, Yancey's team embeds three behavioral "nudges" that promote self-awareness:

  • Think from each of the perspectives presented in the video.
  • Consciously consider your own opinion.
  • Observe how your opinion stacks up against your peers'.

"Promoting self-awareness is a critical step" in addressing bias, Yancey said.

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Penn. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth and The Career Survival Guide.


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