10 Ways HR Can Help to Tackle Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Racial injustices and social inequities have come to the fore as a result of Black Lives Matter protests around the world. While there are undeniable challenges associated with these issues, there are ample opportunities for organizations to educate, learn, and unlearn deep-rooted often unconscious biases, together. Ultimately, as Hayley Barnard co-founder and managing director at MIX Diversity Developers suggests, “we need to make the unconscious conscious.”  Here are ten ways to tackle unconscious bias in the workplace:

1. Educate yourself so you know exactly what you’re standing for and why. It’s not enough to not be racist, you have to be anti-racist. The only way we can achieve this is through exposure, through education, through compassion. Listening and learning allows us to see how we can inadvertently be complicit in inequity. Have dialogues with others, and internal chit chats with yourself.

2. Find context – the why. Ask: How can you become a better individual, a better organization? You have to be able to acknowledge there’s a problem so that you can take more ownership. Individually you have to acknowledge implicit bias because of societal behaviors. You have to acknowledge, for example, that if there are two people with equal resumes, because of unconscious bias in the workplace, the person with the white-sounding name is twice as likely to get a callback. Case in point:

Researchers at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, as part of a different study from 2011, sent out almost 13,000 fake resumes to over 3,000 job postings. The academics went back to this data at the start of 2017 and found that people with Chinese, Indian or Pakistani-sounding names were 28% less likely to get invited to an interview than the fictitious candidates with English-sounding names, even when their qualifications were the same.

3. Apply the domino theory. Individuals affect teams. Teams affect departments and divisions. Departments and divisions affect our organizations. And our organizations affect society.

As an organization, you have mangers with lots of people reporting to them. Are your managers part of the diversity injustice problem? 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 you 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.

Sensitize managers and the broader organization to these sorts of unconscious biases and encourage self-reflection through training, educational resources, and ongoing support. Tips 4, 5, 6 and 7 offer resources and examples.

unconscious bias in the workplace - take time to reflect

4. Create spaces where individuals can discuss issues and do the work together. Diverse people are disproportionately taking on more weight to explain and advocate their issues with colleagues. Stephanie Huckel, senior global program manager of diversity and inclusion at IGT cites the following example: “If we see a feminine person with a wedding ring, we may ask them about their husband. Now, that person, who does not have a husband, is thinking, ‘OK, I was not planning on coming out today, so my options are, I’m going to lie about it … or suggest that it is not a wedding ring … or [I] may jump right in and come out and hope that this goes OK.” Huckle points out that 46% of LGBTQ people hide who they are at work while 50% of non-LGBTQ workers don’t think there are any LGBTQ people at their workplace.

Another example, reported by Fullstack Academy, is the experience of digital strategist and former Twitter employee Mark Luckie. Until his tenure at Twitter, he strongly resisted being “the Black guy”. He didn’t want to be the sole representative of a multifaceted group of people or be siloed into focusing on Black issues. But in an industry where even some of the biggest employers have only two Black programmers for every 100 hired, who else is equipped to speak to the Black experience and give Black product users a voice?

How can individuals acknowledge and alleviate these kinds of pressure? Diversity, equity and inclusion are, after all, an organization issue and ought to be tackled by our organizations collectively.

Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences Diversity Dialogue, are forums that build awareness around issues related to diversity and inclusion. Past addresses are a great resource for sharing and can be viewed online. Similarly, Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research offers a Voice and Influence program to help everybody share experiences and discuss what actions we as individuals can take to increase our own voice and influence.

5. Dive deeper into how you look at things, how you look at yourself, how you look at your organization. The Implicit Association Test from Harvard’s “Project Implicit” is a series of online questionnaires that measure associations between concepts, stereotypes, and evaluations. It measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. And it can be an enlightening first step to learn you have an implicit attitude you didn’t know about.

6. Mentally fill the shoes of someone, with someone else. “Substitution” is a method recommended by Barnard. Think about a situation then substitute one person for another and ask yourself: Would I still feel the same way? Would I still respond the same way? An anthropologist refers to it as learning to do a bit of internal spying, to check yourself and think: Why do I feel that way about someone?

7. Be conscious of and listen to those outside of your circles. Barnard also invites us to analyze our informal networks, to list the two or three people in and outside of the workplace we go to if we have an issue to discuss. “When we categorize those people in terms of education, gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity, and so on, what most people see,” says Barnard, “is that their unofficial advisory board very much looks like them, and probably, therefore, thinks like them. So, we can each challenge ourselves to seek out the perspective of someone different from ourselves, even if that just means grabbing a coffee with someone you don’t ordinarily talk to in the office.”

unconscious bias in the workplace - build blended teams

8. Build blended teams to increase awareness of different perspectives. An AESC article describes a marketing executive at a global engineering firm who observed that the firm’s team leaders were all of a similar race, age, sex, education, and experience, and questioned how the organization could think differently moving forward if the same type of people are always at the helm? A decision was made to re-shuffle and diversify various sectors, team leaders. A good move considering that in 2017 the Boston Consulting Group found companies with diverse management teams report 19% higher “innovation revenue” (revenue generated by products launched in the preceding three years) than those without.

9. Maximize the power of modelling. HR professionals need to walk the talk. If we’re talking about biases in particular and are doing training, and working through educating ourselves about our own biases, be open about that process. To share takes some vulnerability. And that vulnerability is important for leaders across all career streams. Talk about areas where, as HR professionals and leaders, we struggle: the biases that we came into our career with, and how we overcame those biases. How we have worked to become more self-aware as HR professionals and leaders – and encourage that same kind of self-awareness across all levels of management. We need to build personal insight, so if we can be vulnerable and talk about our imperfections, talk about how we have struggled, that becomes an important starting point in terms of building credibility, and, it is modelling the behavior that we want to extend across the organization. Think about the values you want to put forward as an organization, that you feel are important for your people to follow and create behaviors around those.

10. Protect virtual workspaces from hackers and trolls. In our pandemic transition to virtual communication, many of us are operating largely online. But are we prepared to deal with discrimination in the virtual workplace? Historically, the internet has served as a breeding ground for racist rhetoric and alt-right groups. Nowadays cyber attackers are targeting Zoom gatherings (which has 300 million meeting participants using its cloud-based software daily). Dozens of Twitter users have also documented being bombed by unsavory groups while working.

As employers, we have a responsibility and a duty of care to establish and widely broadcast processes and procedures to safeguard against hackers and trolls. While HR people may feel lost in implementing safety measures USA Today compiled a list of safety tips you can share with your organization to keep zoom-bombing intruders away, among them:

  • Be wary of links
  • Adjust screen share options
  • Use waiting rooms
  • Create a webinar instead of a virtual meeting
  • Remember that everything is being recorded.

Conscious actions equate with better engagement

Once we start recognizing systemic discrimination and unconscious bias in the workplace, it’s important to understand the make-up of our employee-base. Diversity, equity, and inclusion surveys can be a springboard.

When we understand the makeup of our workforce and peoples’ experiences and sentiment within our organizations, we can broaden our perspective based on the insights of those who face unconscious systemic roadblocks every day. We can bring these unintended outliers deeper into the fold as valued and engaged employees.

Engagement is, after all, a measurement of a person’s inclusion in an organization and drives the overall quality, creativity, and output of the people seated at our tables regardless of skin colour, belief systems, gender and orientation, or whether those tables are in our offices or their homes.

Additional Resources

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Unconscious Bias Is a Tricky Subject. Read more about unconscious bias in the workplace.

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