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Overcoming Workplace Bias

Updated: Dec 12, 2021

Despite the goodness that could come out of diversity and inclusion for business transformation, racial injustice and workplace bias is still commonplace in the corporate sector. It could be race-based bias, a gender-based issue, or any of the other discriminatory bases outside or within the purview of the EEOC compliance. Regardless, the first step to addressing and subsequently overcoming bias is by waking up to the reality of the issue and taking stock of our own unconscious biases.

Starting the conversation

The greatest trick that this discrimination or bias thrives on is to convince its audience that it doesn’t exist. The highly publicized deadly use of force or excessive use of force by law enforcement and the protests that followed have reignited conversations around race relations and the treatment of people of color in the US, and in other places around the world.

Kathy Gurchieck, writing for SHRM, rightly notes that addressing racism in the workplace should start with having conversations, albeit hard and respectful ones.

As many organizations and sectors are joining the conversation and showing different levels of solidarity and commitment to ending this age-long menace, employers must engage employees in meaningful and respectful conversations to evaluate current happenings within their offices as well as devise strategies for improvement where necessary. This is true for not just racism but also other types of biases, conscious or unconscious.

Developing anti-bias strategies

Conscious and unconscious bias touches every aspect of the corporate sector from the hiring process right up to who gets promoted to what roles. Harvard University’s professor of sociology, Frank Dobbin, noted in a publication on ‘bias in the hiring process’ noted that bias is an inherent part of everyone. Bias is similar to what we call stereotyping, which arises from our natural inclination to categorize things, people, etc.

While many companies already have episodic training programs for bias education, these rarely work or often tend to yield insignificant results. To create anti-bias strategies that work, Sigal Barsade, Wharton management professor recommends that such a strategy should include;

1. Making employees receptive to anti-bias education

Anti-bias programs should start with presenting employees with a better understanding of where bias comes from, what it is, and the negative outcomes it could have on work. These will most likely make employees more receptive to subsequent anti-bias education as well as strategies to reduce and prevent this at both organizational and individual levels.

2. Making equality and anti-bias a part of the company culture

Employers, managers, and leaders should make anti-bias a part of the organization’s corporate culture, rather than as a standalone training, or just another lip-service commitment. This education should flow to and from the entire workplace context and not just as occasional activities.

3. Encouraging discussions outside of regular training and seminars

Bias is entrenched in every aspect of the workplace.

While there are unsubstantial data in some cases, there have been studies and researches that have shown reliable data on the biases in the processes leading to hiring. Because this is a larger workplace issue, discussions, and strategies to overcome bias should not be limited to seminars and training programs alone. Employers should encourage discussions during the hiring process, at job evaluation stages, and in other areas, to create an atmosphere that encourages honest conversations without fear of recriminations.

4. Leveraging mentoring and recruitment programs to promote workforce diversity

Mentorship and recruitment programs can help workers get closer as they work side by side. This can especially be helpful for individuals who have not been previously exposed to co-equal work situations in diverse settings. This can also help to reduce stereotyping and animosity arising from racial, gender, or other differences.

5. Creating task force teams to monitor situations

Creating teams that monitor and promote workplace diversity should also be a consideration, especially for organizations with the resources to assemble and manage such teams. This, as well as all of the other strategies, will help ensure that workplace diversity, equality, and inclusion, are not mere standalone goals but rather as core elements of a larger corporate effort and culture.

The focus and drive for overcoming bias in the workplace should be about the greater good.

But there’s also a business case for tackling workplace bias. Previous research had indicated that companies in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity are 35% more likely to record higher financial returns compared to their industry median. In the same vein, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to record higher financial gains than their industry median, as well.

Overcoming unconscious bias is a company-wide responsibility. The strategies discussed above will, however, go a long way into making managers and employees aware of both our individual biases and why this should be tackled with their full support.

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