Three Crucial Questions for Uncovering Unconscious Bias at Work

Diversity does not equal inclusion.

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace has improved during the past 20 years. Studies have shown that managing diversity tops the list of priorities for many businesses. Within the past decade, there has been an explosion of senior-level diversity officer roles at corporations, higher education and law firms. With all of these resources put toward increasing diversity, why have most organizations not achieved the change they seek?

Despite societal advancement, there are still reminders that people are treated unfairly because of their faith, how they look, or how they sound.

Our silence might be an acknowledgment that we don’t know how to achieve the diversity we seek.

In the workplace, part of the problem is not knowing the difference between diversity and inclusion. Think of the high school lunch table as a metaphor.

Do you remember what your high school cafeteria looked like, sounded like and what it smelled like? You probably had a group of friends that you ate lunch with every day. Imagine one day you asked a different group if you could sit with them, and they enthusiastically made room for you. But after a few minutes at this new table you noticed you were not part of the conversation. People were making plans for the weekend without asking you to join them. When you tried to tell a joke, everyone stared at you dismissively. People talked over you and cut you off mid-sentence. While you were invited to sit at the table, you were not invited to engage at the table. Many organizations do a great job of recruiting for the diversity they seek, but fail to create inclusive environments.

Engagement is a measure of a person’s inclusion in an organization and drives the overall quality of the human capital brought to the table.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that everyone has needs that must be met before they can reach a level of self-actualization. In the workplace, employees’ safety and psychological needs are most likely taken care of because their jobs provide the financial resources needed to clothe and feed themselves. The difficulty in most workplaces, however, starts with social needs.

When you have friends and positive relationships at work, it creates a sense of belonging. Next are your esteem needs. Everyone has a need to have their work recognized by senior leaders. If employees never hear they are doing a good job, they may doubt their work and themselves.

If all your other needs are met, you may reach the level of self-actualization at work. That is the point at which you take initiative and solve the critical problems in your organization. When your social and esteem needs are met, you have the space, room and security to think about new and different ways to contribute to your organization’s business goals. If one of these rungs on the ladder to engagement is missing, it could negatively impact the organization. For instance, employee turnover is one consequence of not having engagement, and it costs a lot of money to replace an employee.

So how and why does exclusion still take place when there are direct benefits to inclusion? Often, without even realizing it, people engage in micro-inequities that are driven by their unconscious biases. Micro-inequities are the subtle gestures, comments and interactions that make a person feel included or excluded by another. It’s feeling ignored when you’re talking to someone and they glance at their watch when you make an important point. It’s being left off of an email chain when you should have been included. Think of micro-inequities as the waves that threaten to erode your beautiful beach house that sits on wooden stilts. Over time, the waves deteriorate the wooden stilts, often in ways that are unseen by the naked eye.

While there are a number of ways to uncover exclusion and unconscious bias in an organization—and eventually eradicate it—the process may start with three questions:

  1. Is there a team member who would view my feedback as negative, if I give them any feedback at all?

  1. Who on the team do I dislike working with?

  1. Which person on the team makes me say, “I am having such a difficult time getting to know this person”?

Most likely the person or people who surface in your responses are feeling excluded from your work groups.

In a training session for a large government agency, there was a senior leader who admitted that while he was committed to diversity as a cause, he was not putting his actions into practice with certain individuals on his team. He courageously admitted that he created a self-fulfilling prophecy in which his favorite employees were excelling and the others, whom he did not connect with and had ignored, were struggling. Invitations to his afternoon coffee excursions to Starbucks were only extended to the people on his team whom he connected with and liked.

Even those with the best intentions have difficulty tying their words to their actions. Creating an inclusive culture requires shaking our unconscious minds awake and questioning our actions.

Natalie Holder is an employment lawyer, speaker, corporate trainer and author of Exclusion: Strategies for Increasing Diversity in Recruitment, Retention, and PromotionShe is a recipient of New York University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award. 

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