Want to fix diversity and inclusion? Address your unconscious bias

Embracing diversity makes firms stronger, writes Jim Barnett

Building work environments that embrace and encourage the differences among people is a known performance-booster. That’s because diversity gives you access to the full range of perspectives to make your business the best it can be.

But beyond the economics, it’s our role as leaders to ensure our team is heard – to empower them to make a difference, to promote their success, and make them feel included.

However, achieving greater inclusivity in practice – the challenge that we now call the diversity and inclusion gap in the workplace – has turned out to be difficult for some to crack. We believe that one of the best places to begin is by addressing unconscious bias in our teams. Unconscious bias may be quietly preventing you from achieving the outcomes you’re aiming for.

Bias often results from over-promoting representation of certain groups. And it can be a pretty hard-wired, basic human issue: Google research shows how subconscious judgments impact many workplace decisions and influence the policies and practices we design. Those policies and practices inform our behaviour as a matter of course and, as this research states, these biases “can cause people to overlook great ideas, undermine individual potential, and create a less-than-ideal work experience for colleagues”.

Clearly, addressing and reducing this bias will help in meeting your diversity and inclusion goals. But how? We have identified a few clear steps to help make workplace diversity a reality for any organisation.

An honest appraisal and clear communication

First, be aware of your blind spots and how they may be colouring your interactions with others. You can do this both by leading through reflection and by taking a hard look at your people data. Reflect on why you may be drawn to certain candidates, team members, or colleagues – do these individuals genuinely meet your criteria for success, or is it because they are similar to you? What does the data show you about your hiring and promotion practices?

Hold yourself and your team accountable for counteracting bias by publicly communicating your goals for new hires and promotions, and how these will be assessed. At our company, Glint, one of our company values is to “default to open.” By this, we mean we try to be as open as possible with information and data and also approach all interactions, discussions, and any situations that involve conflict with an open mind. At the same time, we endeavour to look at challenging situations as opportunities to learn. The way we do this is to try to stay as curious as possible and regularly ask ourselves the question, ‘What if the reverse of what I assume is actually true here?’ In the area of bias, we ask, “how could bias be impacting our company’s people strategies?”

Look to spotlight real examples of acknowledging bias in the moment, and then use these examples to underline why it’s so important to understand and address.

One of our customers is putting all this into practice and helping to meet their diversity and inclusion goals. That’s Sky UK, whose managers use a simple toolkit containing research on why diversity and inclusion matters, and materials specifically for its senior leaders so they are empowered to communicate about diversity in the workplace.

A conversation-based culture

Best practice suggests you should also seek to encourage an environment that supports open conversations between managers and employees – among teams and across the organisation. Positive, open conversation is the foundation of change: it can fundamentally alter our understandings of one another, as well as boost empathy and strengthen our own comfort with authenticity.

How do we implement this? Leaders must seek feedback from their teams on a frequent basis and ensure that everyone’s opinion is taken into consideration. Organisations should also try and involve as diverse a set of people as possible to review and support the policies being created, in order to ensure their design is reflective of true diversity of thought and experience.

Leadership need to ensure the whole organisation is provided with guidelines for how to facilitate and conduct effective conversations within their teams, and continuously reinforce their importance. Providing teams with timeframes for holding these conversations can help reduce resistance to engaging in these discussions.

At Sky UK, facilitators use guides with videos and quizzes to get the conversation going in their teams. It also supports five internal diversity and inclusion employee networks – parents@sky, LGBT+@sky, women@sky, multiculture@sky and body&mind@sky – all run by volunteers with an exec sponsor and light touch guidance from the inclusivity team. According to Catherine Garrod, the firm’s Head of Inclusion, the data and comments these gather are “a fantastic source of insight creating bottom-up pressure from their members, keeping us focused on the things that matter most to our people”.

Measuring progress is important

There is a long-standing maxim that only that what gets measured gets improved. So, ensure you are frequently measuring and reporting on the sentiments and actions of your teams.

With frequent ongoing engagement surveys in place and data (that you’ll ideally receive on an on-going basis, not just every six months), you can look for trends, bright spots, and patterns. Do individuals feel a sense of inclusion, or are they feeling excluded? Do they feel like they have a significant role to play, or do they feel overlooked and underappreciated?

Use these survey insights to fuel conversations and to focus any actions you take to address concerns. And never forget that while HR teams can create company-wide programmes for hiring, retaining and promoting a wider range of employees, individual departments and teams are best placed to track and ensure that progress is being made for individuals.

Our diverse future is a rich one

When it comes to the values of diversity, inclusion, and belonging, the time for talk is long past. Now, it’s time for action. No organisation has completely figured out how to eradicate unconscious bias, but the benefits of true workplace diversity are so obviously attractive that the challenges inherent in it simply have to be addressed.

Addressing unconscious bias is a great place to start that journey.

–– Jim Barnett is chief executive officer of Glint, a people success platform on a mission to help people be happier and more successful at work, and which is now part of LinkedIn

–– Discover the key to binning your unconscious bias here