How to fight against unconscious biases in the workplace

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Diversity and inclusion are two important goals for many companies, but employers’ efforts toward it can be undermined by bias — conscious and unconscious — in the workplace.

Workplace bias takes many forms, such as microaggressions, and results in employees being unfairly excluded from experiences and opportunities.

“A lot of microaggressions happen at work, and that is how a lot of our unconscious biases play out in the workplace,” says Risha Grant, a diversity, inclusion and bias expert. “For people of color, when you read and hear about cases like Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — unfortunately, our feelings don't wait at home until we get back from work in the evening; we come to work with that.”

Grant, who has worked with and consulted companies like Macy’s, Samsung and Morgan Stanley, says that race, religion and politics are often taboo subjects in the workplace, but race relations are an important topic to address.

When employees are subject to offensive or hurtful comments at work, or when a colleague is showing a lack of empathy, it makes it very difficult for them to give their best and meet company goals, Grant says.

From becoming aware of our unconscious biases to addressing them, Grant shared steps employers and employees can take to eliminate bias in the workplace.

How can we become aware of our unconscious biases?

Figure out who makes you uncomfortable and why — and accept it. [When I do public speaking], I ask my audience to imagine that they're on a flight that’s completely full, but that middle seat next to them is open. Who don't you want to sit there? Because we look down the aisle and say “oh, I hope this person doesn't sit here.”

It can be because they're overweight, have facial tattoos all over them or wearing a turban or a hijab. There are so many reasons that we don't want to sit next to people, but if you continue to ask more questions, you begin to get down to it. Maybe you don't want to sit next to the person with the facial tattoo because they make you uncomfortable, because you automatically start thinking that they've been to jail or something like that. We take these stereotypes, and we put people in a box very quickly, unless you ask yourself who makes you uncomfortable and why.

If you know that you feel really uncomfortable around Black people or Latino people or white men — whatever it is — then you can start to really assess what that is for you and then you attribute it. You can ask yourself “So is it my issue or their fault?” It's your issue. We spend a lot of time trying to get people to move in the direction that we think they should be, but trying to get a perfect stranger to dim their lights to make us comfortable is ridiculous.

Then I ask people to identify where that feeling comes from — is it social norms or family issues? Because the more deeply rooted it is, the more difficult it is to get over. But once you identify your bias, you can own them. Once you start to break down those barriers by talking to other people, you start to let go of some of the negative ways that you feel. [It’s also important that your] company backs you up, because once you're doing the work — they have to have inclusive policies in place that have consequences for people who are violating those policies.

What are some steps employers and employees can take to eliminate bias?

I have a three-step process where you have to identify your bias, own it and confront it. We have to do that individually because it's very easy for us to talk about what our companies need to be doing, and what everybody else needs to be doing, but the only thing you control is yourself. So in saying that you do the work to become a better person, and as all of us working together to deal with unconscious bias, we begin to then put policies in place at work that will back up you as an individual.

Why is it important to address bias in the workplace?

First of all, discrimination lawsuits are still the number one lawsuit filed in the U.S. every year. The price of inclusion is so much cheaper than the price of exclusion. I could sit here and rattle off so many companies that have spent millions of dollars in discrimination lawsuits. Who wants to work that hard for their profit to have it spent defending lawsuits?

So when companies don't deal with bias, they're going to lose money. They're going to spend money on hiring new employees over and over again, and they're going to lose a competitive edge because that’s what having a diverse work group brings your company.

If we're not allowing people to show up fully as themselves at work, they will not talk. You need those voices because your company needs to represent the community it serves. People do not sit in meetings and not talk because they don't have anything to say — there's something about your culture that has made them feel as if their voice does not matter. Bias shows up at work with stagnant sales, lack of creativity and low morale. All of those things are happening and you may not be able to put your finger on it. But why is it that you have underperforming teams?

I'm not saying that's the only reason, but when people have to show up every day uncomfortable, just so that you are comfortable, they can't give you their best. They're not at their best. Allow people to be who they are. Give them the value they deserve for simply being another human being that takes up space with you in this world.

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