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Unconscious Bias: Overcoming Barriers to DEI in the Workplace

Unconscious Bias: Overcoming Barriers to DEI in the Workplace

Many studies have detailed the positive effects of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, but there is only so much that a written policy can do on this matter. Unconscious bias, otherwise known as implicit bias, is one of the foremost challenges that employers face when trying to make changes in their company’s approach to DEI.

Unconscious bias can be defined as social stereotypes that occur in one’s subconscious. One subtype of implicit bias is group thinking, which is when employees try so hard to embody a certain stereotype that they may withhold thoughts or opinions, resulting in a lack of innovation and creativity in a company. You may be wondering: if one does not know that these prejudices exist, how can we work to remedy the effects of implicit bias in our businesses? Luckily, implicit bias is not a permanent problem, as it can be solved or limited through a variety of methods.

According to the Office of Diversity and Outreach at the University of San Francisco, the first step in overcoming unconscious bias is through self-awareness. One way to do this is to complete an Implicit Association Test (IAT), which measures unconscious bias through sorting of words and concepts into categories. By taking this test and becoming more aware of one’s own biases, an employer can consciously work against these ingrained stereotypes to reduce their level of unconscious bias, thus becoming a strong example of DEI to employees.

Another way to improve self-awareness is by simply talking about it. In an article by the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the National Institute of Health, the importance of management embodying ideal behaviors, like self-awareness, and discussing the importance of recognizing unconscious biases is vital to limiting its potential effects in the workplace.

The hiring process is one of the areas most affected by unconscious bias., The prejudices and stereotypes that manifest during the recruitment process can be a formidable barrier in the progress of DEI in a business organization. An article on this issue by Harvard Business School discusses how self-awareness is a vital tool in hiring without bias; however, another way to avoid bias is standardization of the interview. A standardized interview process means that each candidate is asked the same questions in the same order, thus giving each applicant the same opportunities to discuss themselves in ways that only impact their job performance, eliminating the effect of unconscious personal or social stereotypes on the process.

Hybrid workplaces can face their own type of unconscious bias. Proximity bias – believing that someone who isn’t present in the office is not as productive as in-office workers – is a common issue in today’s hybrid worklife. Unaddressed proximity bias and other unconscious biases damage a healthy corporate culture, reduce productivity, and drive away top-performing employees, all at a cost to an organization’s fiscal health.

Overall, there are many ways in which leaders can overcome unconscious bias in the workplace, but addressing one’s own bias should always be the first step. An employer should serve as an example to their employees to promote DEI on all levels of an organization by improving their own self-awareness. Lead by example, and the rest will follow.

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How to Maintain DEI Habits in the Hybrid Workplace

How to Maintain DEI Habits in the Hybrid Workplace

The hybrid workplace isn’t even a question any more. Hybrid is here to stay, supported by digital transformations like document digitization, and by well-documented productivity increases. But among those who study corporate cultures, big concerns remain, in particular the “proximity bias.”

Whether you call it face time, hallway moments, or watercooler time, informal in-person interactions were the traditional way managers kept tabs on employees’ engagement. Visible workers were considered productive workers. But in hybrid operations, in-person visibility is diminished and managers often struggle to evaluate and lead their teams without access to the usual in-person cues.

Many companies made strides in DEI policy implementation prior to hybrid operations. However, the proximity bias may be undermining DEI progress. In the absence of customary performance cues, managers unconsciously fall back on old outdated attitudes regarding the value and productivity of particular classes of employee.

Writing in, leadership expert Amanda Xido discusses ways some businesses are combating the proximity bias. Some have standardized in-office days and times. Some are rotating who is in the office when, or letting collaborative teams establish in-office schedules. Still others rely on routine in-person check-ins between managers and employees. Any of these strategies helps to short-circuit the proximity bias.

Data can help reveal additional DEI shortcomings in the hybrid workplace. Xido points to analyses of communications and decision-making – for example, are men sending most of the Slack communications, even though women are the majority of employees? A McKinsey study showed a measurable preference for inclusivity in the hybrid workplace, in work-life support, team building, and mutual respect.

Moreover, the McKinsey study showed a clear competitive advantage for an inclusive culture in attracting and retaining top talent: a 47% increase in the likelihood of an employee staying with a hybrid organization if it is inclusive. Listening to employees – conducting surveys, requesting feedback – provides useful data to help build DEI initiatives.

The change to hybrid is a giant step in the evolution of the way we work. The logistics of transitioning from the traditional to the hybrid office is a lot to manage. However, if the leadership team keeps DEI central in its organizational re-formation, the results will always be good for the organization’s productivity, its profitability, and the customers it serves.


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