Hidden Bias: Sustaining an Inclusive Workplace

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Workplace bias takes many forms, but the result is always the same – exclusion of members of the workforce from experiences and opportunities for which they are qualified. We all have hidden biases, and they can prevent businesses from leveraging the talents and perspectives of all members of their workforce. 

Throughout this series, we’ve given examples of how and where bias often shows up in the workplace, why it is important to examine and how to minimize it. But how do we know if what we’re doing is enough? Hopefully by examining bias, we are learning more about ourselves, but do the inclusive practices we employ to combat it lead to better business outcomes? 

One of the most difficult things to do when tackling these issues in the workplace is sustaining change, and that is often linked to the difficulty in evaluating progress. This final piece in our Hidden Bias series looks at how employers are taking their knowledge of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and applying it in their daily work. Some practices are universally applicable, while others are specific to an industry or workforce. Regardless, it’s the commitment to integrating DEI practices over time that can foster true cultural shifts within an organization.

Diversity and inclusion

Uncovering hidden bias is an inclusive practice that improves recruitment, hiring processes and retention. It is one way organizations begin to change their culture and reflect and support diverse perspectives in their workforce. When leaders make this commitment, it also sends a signal to staff that they understand the value of diversity and the organization is actively seeking to take on employees with varied backgrounds, beliefs and experience. But new hires won’t just be working with leadership – their impression of the company and its culture will be influenced mostly by their managers and coworkers. And if inclusive practices aren’t promoted and applied throughout an organization, the benefits of building a more diverse workforce are less likely to be realized. 

We talked about the benefits of inclusive workplace practices in our previous post on retention strategies. Sustained use of inclusive workforce practices can lead to long-term culture change. Yet, this is where most organizations struggle. For example, we can teach our employees why it’s important to identify implicit bias, but how do we know if this is leading to less division among staff? If we can’t measure progress, it’s difficult to set goals, and if we can’t set goals, it’s difficult to sustain the kind of focus needed to effect real change. 

As noted in our previous posts on recruiting and hiring and retention strategies, employee engagement surveys are a good place to start. So let’s take a closer look at how they can be leveraged to gauge inclusion. When an organization is intentionally trying to be more inclusive in a specific practice – workplace interaction, for example – it’s more helpful to know how often employees feel excluded. Uncovering where employees experience exclusion highlights where an organization is most vulnerable, and where additional training or resources may be warranted.

In addition to workplace interaction, Aleria Research, a nonprofit whose purpose is to conduct charitable, scientific research in areas related to diversity and inclusion, has identified “inclusion categories” such as: access and participation, skills use and assignments, learning and growth, compensation and benefits, promotion and career opportunities, work-life balance, recognition, and respect.1 The application of these categories looks different at every organization, but each contains significant opportunities to nurture inclusion. To measure these efforts, start by asking employees to specify whether and how often they have felt that their personal traits prevented them from enjoying each inclusion category.

Customized design

Measuring inclusion will help to identify areas to improve on and progress made over time.  Cultivating progress and sustaining inclusion, however, also depends on how well training and practices are integrated uniquely within your operation.  

How inclusive practices are implemented will often depend on the industry of an organization.  For example, manufacturers and other shift-based organizations often must consider how training days impact production, and how to provide equitable support to employees who work different hours.

Employees at customer-facing organizations may have a different level of familiarity with the public they are serving. For example, how far an employee’s personal traits vary from the “normative majority” of the clientele they serve may affect their level of success. Workplace dynamics such as this can require that some employees be offered specific training based on their strengths and/or weaknesses. Managing a diverse workforce often means an employer cannot expect to train everyone the same and attain the same results. 

Following this example, it’s hard to overstate how beneficial intercultural communication training can be to an organization. In a multicultural workplace, the usual or expected way of doing something, or “norms,” can vary. Norms are often invisible in a monocultural environment, as verbal and non-verbal cues are generally understood. As an organization begins introducing more diversity, it can be critical to address how various “norms” may not seem so normal to those from another cultural background. A general respect for these variations helps to address hidden bias, and signals to new and existing employees that workplace diversity is not just symbolic. Rather, it is a genuine business approach that recognizes value in the different experience and perspective of every employee.

Minnesota State Community and Technical College is one of several CareerForce partners that customizes intercultural communication training for businesses, based on their workforce makeup and industry. Ultimately, the interactive training builds specific strategies for sustaining respectful communication that is unique to each organization. 

DyCast Specialties, a midsize manufacturer in Starbuck, Minn., has leveraged the training to build a more inclusive culture. “The training was very engaging and developed specifically for us. It was important to talk about how we communicate at DyCast and how we can improve,” says Chief Financial Officer Ed Bolas. “We found there are more differences here than we realized, and I think it’ll help us embrace more diversity in the future.”

Minnesota State’s Workforce Solutions has business training programs throughout the state. Minnesota Compass and Nexus Community Partners also provide lists of DEI training resources and consultants.

Feedback loops

An organization that understands the diversity and dynamics in its workforce and designs its training accordingly will become more inclusive as a result. This, in time, will attract more diversity, requiring further evaluation and adaptation. Feedback loops help to sustain this growth cycle and increase an organization’s capacity to realize its benefits.

Feedback loops can be internal or external to an organization. Internal feedback on diversity and inclusion initiatives can be particularly helpful when analyzing survey results, designing inclusive workforce practices and generating support for their implementation.  

For example, many organizations of all sizes have established diversity, equity and inclusion councils. A diversity council should be made up of employees who reflect many aspects of diversity. Employees may volunteer to serve on the council, be appointed by leadership or be chosen by their peers. However it’s formed, there should be a clear process defined before selection of the council begins. The diversity council helps guide an organization’s implementation of its strategic plan for a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. Leadership, funding and executive presence is provided by the organization and is critical for the council’s success.

An employee resources group (ERG) is another internal feedback mechanism that can enhance inclusive workforce practices. An ERG is a group of employees who share a common trait and volunteer to serve as part of an advisory group. Together, they advise the organization on an aspect of diversity – such as accessibility or LGBTQ – and on how workplace practices may or may not support a more inclusive culture. Critically, they may also serve as a supportive career network for prospective, new or existing employees who identify with the ERG. An ERG provides its own leadership; the organization may provide an executive sponsor and some funding.

An organization’s diversity and inclusion strategy may include both a diversity council and one or more employee resource groups. If both are in place, clear communication of the charter and mission of each group is even more important. Here’s a quick overview of their respective characteristics.2

 

Diversity Council

Employee Resource Group

Participants

Appointed executives, representatives, or employee advocates

Diversity advocates, employees who volunteer to serve on the group, sometimes allies (supporters)

Mission

Helps provide focus to an organization’s overall diversity and inclusion initiatives

Connects the organization to an aspect of diversity

Voice

Speaks with one voice – and many voices – to the organization

Reflects the affinity group to the organization and represents the organization to the community

Examples of work products

Strategic planning, input to management, education, communication

Career development support, staff education, and outreach to diverse communities and customers

 

External feedback loops can also help improve an organization’s efforts to be more inclusive, especially when connecting with diverse talent pools that leaders and managers are unfamiliar with or haven’t worked with before. By seeking input from community partners, employers learn more about the challenges faced by individual groups and create the type of buy-in that erodes bias and establishes resilient workforce pipelines.   

Career Solutions, which facilitates the Immigrant Employment Connection Group (IECG), seeks to create meaningful connections this way. The IECG was established in 2015 to educate employers and assist them in overcoming barriers that are real or perceived when hiring from the immigrant population. In addition to learning inclusive practices for immigrants in the workplace, employers become privy to the wide scope of workforce development issues that affect new or prospective employees.  

In Big Lake, a food production company that was expanding their production reached out to IECG to help fill 40 new food handler positions. Within weeks, they connected with East African communities and began filling positions. However, management quickly realized they needed to increase their capacity to address communication and cultural gaps. IECG staff went to work with their community partners to build cultural training for company leadership, which led to inclusive applications that enabled their new employees to meet their responsibilities without sacrificing their cultural identity in the process. 

Conclusion

By examining hidden bias and its influence on ourselves, the knowledge we gain can also uncover hidden value within our organizations and businesses. Studies show that when employees feel included, they’re more productive.3 That can lead not only to more satisfied employees, but to better business outcomes. Sustaining these outcomes, however, requires thoughtful implementation and meaningful employee engagement. It requires the cultivation of an inclusive culture that capitalizes on the inherent value of a diverse workforce.

1Inclusion is Invisible: What you should measure

2CareerForce Diversity, Equity and inclusion Guide for Employers

3 Delivering Through Diversity

 

Workforce Strategy Consultant Author:

Chet Bodin, Workforce Strategy Consultant for Northwest Minnesota

 

Related CareerForceMN.com content:

Main Hidden Bias in the Workplace page

Previous Hidden Bias in the Workplace blog post in the series: Addressing hidden bias in retention strategies

 

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