By: Mona Ameli
Often perceived as a negative action taken deliberately, unconscious biases are actually cognitive automatic shortcuts, often based on primitive, mistaken, outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete information deeply rooted in our cultural, environmental and family upbringing.
To have a true and authentic inclusive culture, a key area to address is stereotypes, which not only impact our individual and/or organizational behaviors, but can then undermine the sustainability of inclusive diversity. Another term for this is unconscious bias.
Often perceived as a negative action taken deliberately, unconscious biases are actually cognitive automatic shortcuts, often based on primitive, mistaken, outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete information deeply rooted in our cultural, environmental and family upbringing. These pieces of mistaken information affect our attitudes and thoughts without us realizing it.
All human beings are biased in some way, but some biases can be harmful and can have a significant impact on workplaces, shaping many core decisions in areas such as hiring, recruiting, compensation, promotions, marketing affiliation, branding and more.
Some of the most hurtful examples include: “women are too kind, caring and emotional to become leaders”; “hiring from top-tier universities brings in the best and most productive talent”; “John Johnson is a better and more high-potential candidate to hire/promote for this high-visibility position than Jamil Johnson”; “Let’s add a Latina-looking woman with four children to this marketing brochure so we show we have diversity.”
There are many types of unconscious bias in the workplace, but the two most observed are Affinity Bias and the Halo/Horn Effect. Affinity Bias, or like-likes-like, is the tendency to gravitate toward and give preferential treatment to those most like us.
The Halo/Horn Effect is a type of cognitive bias that either elevates (Halo) or taints (Horn) our entire view of a person or an entire community based on one impressive (Halo) or one negative (Horn) aspect. When combined, these two biases can be dangerous, as they get further heightened in times of crisis, which can lead to some of the most harmful racist actions against individuals and communities at large.
Once an unconscious bias is identified, how do we tackle it so it doesn’t perpetuate as prejudice within our decisions and behaviors?
One way that many companies and organizations have tried to overcome this is through employees’ unconscious bias training. These HR-sponsored courses that have become the cure-all for diversity-related challenges have a primary goal of making employees aware of their negative stereotypes and thus helping reduce inequities.
If that is an avenue that you or your company are looking to take, I would caution you against selecting one that is only based on the traditional and highly contested Implicit Association Test (IAT), used for over 20 years but without convincing scientific evidence that it works to predict actual behaviors.
Some even believe that making people more aware of their biases could backlash as they are being recognized as wrong publicly, and the sense of shame would heighten their rejection of wanting to participate in these training sessions. But the real underlying flaws in some current training is that the focus is on thoughts, not on behaviors.
Make sure the unconscious bias training you choose is a behavior-driven approach that goes deeper in the understanding and linking of the employees’ and the organization’s values, behaviors, and actions versus a thought-driven approach that solely focuses on extinguishing an employee’s unconscious thoughts.
The most efficient and sustainable way to address unconscious bias gets beyond an individual’s blind spots and stereotypes and is mostly based on addressing and deconstructing the foundational issues that are linked to the organization’s systems, structures, and policies. Such an approach also works to establish aligned values that are embraced across both the corporate office and the field.
Below are three areas where systematic changes can be implemented to tackle unconscious bias:
Hiring, Recruiting and Compensating
One of the areas most impacted by unconscious bias within an organization is the process of bringing in new talent. Processes at all levels should be objective, structured, individual and blind to name/gender/educational background. This also applies to the use of committee-driven tools, interviews, guidelines and all decision-making processes.
Having a fair corporate compensation strategy is still a highly-challenged topic, as the wage gaps between genders, and racial and educational backgrounds in the U.S. still don’t follow a specific legal direction and are often left up to individual companies. This is an issue that illustrates perfectly the gap between equality and equity.
When applied to field sponsorship, unconscious bias may come into play when the independent contractors are uneasy with outreach and limit themselves to only their warm circle or immediate connections.
This limits the expansion of the field to individuals who “look like” the ones who are already in the field (Affinity Bias), thus not allowing for more diversity.
In turn, it potentially creates a plateau in the number of new independent contractors, limits the market penetration of the brand and ultimately leads to the start of a declining business.
Creating training and platforms where the field is trained in more inclusive diversity sales techniques and heightened Cultural Intelligence (CQ) can be a catalyst for change.
Promotions and Recognition
The criteria for promotions must be pre-set and widely communicated to all. These should be objective, attainable within a reasonable time frame, and follow a fair process—meaning that it includes more than one decision-maker and is open to all to qualify. A huge area of challenge for most companies that don’t have or fully practice an inclusive culture is in their leadership pipeline management.
Often, this pipeline suffers from Affinity Bias or the leadership lacks inclusion (tokenism might be occurring) so promoting more diverse talent, even though a desire, cannot be achieved because of lack of qualified candidates in the pipeline. Recognition should follow the same criteria and be linked to specific, measurable achievements, as well as present benefits and awards that are equally appealing and widely accepted throughout the organization.
From a field perspective, rank advancements and recognition programs should also be widely communicated to all and linked to specific and trackable measurements. Sometimes people prefer to forgo a rank or a recognition because the rewards are either not relative to the level of achievement and/or the reward is not seen as appropriate or adequate.
Also, the underrepresented individuals within the field often may not feel comfortable with being on stage and speaking solo, or they may have difficulty with the timing or nature of the recognition going against their cultural, religious, and/or community beliefs and customs. A heightened sensitivity and special CQ training and awareness is extremely important for the employees who are field-facing and organizing events to ensure these kinds of mishaps don’t undermine the inclusivity of certain members of the field community.
Inclusive Brand Identity
One of the most important aspects of a brand is its ability to connect with all its stakeholders: customers, independent contractors, employees, vendors, etc. While the aspect of brand connection is crucial, the alignment of the brand to the values that the company not only displays but fully embodies is decisive in making or breaking a brand.
So, if the company is boasting its alignment on the values of diversity, it’s critical that the brand shows up as an inclusive brand that authentically represents, serves, and embodies all the different aspects of that diversity genuinely and consistently.
One of the most overlooked areas in our industry is brands that claim they are inclusive but show up and act very exclusive. For example, if you are an inclusive beauty brand, you don’t have different product lines or sub-brands based on skin color or gender.
If you are an inclusive brand, you don’t organize separate conventions for your U.S.-Latino field members away from any general all-field annual conventions. If you are an inclusive brand, your corporate and filed leadership is also inclusively diverse.
Obviously when you are a global brand and have a huge presence on other continents, you may have separate event locations, but within one country, be aware of how you treat the underrepresented communities.
If you are an inclusive brand, be mindful of the holidays you are acknowledging and celebrating as an entire organization. If you are not celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day but have a large Black American community in both your employee and field base, it’s important to understand where your disconnect is.
While it may be impossible to celebrate all holidays, leave some leeway for people to choose or have “free days” to use if their important holidays aren’t part of your official list. Tap into your diverse employee base and field to educate others about these topics so that the awareness can bring more people together and create higher CQ for the entire organization.
Everything Begins with Culture
All the above indicates that sustainable systematic change can only come from creating a strong foundation of organizational culture. This culture must be built on core values that foster mutual compassion, empathy, relatability, as well as continued learning and growth, both at the individual and organizational levels.
While creating awareness around biases and stereotypes is critical, finding alignment and connection through the values that are shared across the organization is what will make everyone feel closer and more united. Commitment to embodying these values through individual behaviors and further integrating them into organizational processes through decision “filters” can, in turn, create an inclusive environment. If you are not proactive, your culture will define itself.
As the saying goes, “crisis doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” Similarly, crisis reveals an organization’s true culture.
The dual crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the anti-racism protests that have shaken our country, society, economy, way of life, and underlying belief system have also opened up the opportunity for us to see where our breakdowns and lapses are, and what has caused them.
Each of us can now acknowledge them and commit to learning and growing from them. What an incredible opportunity!
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