The EMZ Advisory team recently completed a virtual companywide Unconscious Bias workshop, as part of a series of Diversity & Inclusion interventions for a leading multinational corporation that the team has been assisting over the last three years. Conducting such a session amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement, meant that individuals and companies are seeing unconscious biases surfacing more rapidly than before. The only way to not allow these biases to influence how you see yourself and the world is by acknowledging and confronting them, instead of choosing to deny or avoid the discomfort that comes with understanding them better. Knowledge is power and once you consciously learn about something, it no longer has power over you.

Even though some people do not realize this, we all have unconscious biases. These are the stories that we tell ourselves about others and the situations around us. If not careful enough, these biases can hinder us from reaching our goals because they cause us to develop negative stereotypes about ourselves and others. Factors that influence these stereotypes include race, gender, age and culture, among others.  Research by the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Flagler Business School showed that blonde women’s salaries were 7% higher than brunettes or redheads, job applicants with ‘typically white’ names received 50% more call backs than those with ‘typically black’ names, ‘mature-faced’ people had a distinct career advantage over ‘baby-faced’ people, and both male and female scientists were more likely to hire men, rank them higher in competency than women, and pay them $4,000 more per year than women. This is alarming because most companies claim to have progressive policies that are informed by inclusion and diversity. However, this does not translate into the lived day to day experience of their employees and something needs to change.

Businesses that have taken active steps to address these biases have seen a significant improvement in company profitability and employee productivity. They have taken time to invest in tailor made benefits and programs to support employees at all career levels and with miscellaneous interests – introducing interventions to equip both the minority and the majority groups as change is needed across the board. To address biases related to working mothers, some companies have even introduced parental leave for new mothers, in addition to the standard maternity leave. To avoid stigmatization and isolation, they invite women on maternity leave to company conferences, events and anything the company provides to maintain connection with the organisation.

Due to the recent #BLM and #MeToo movements on social media, many organizations have been woken up to the need to introduce measures to prevent discrimination and increase inclusivity  making Diversity & Inclusion interventions a must. Over the years, the EMZ Advisory team has also found different ways to customise the programs – depending on the kinds of issues most prevalent in a particular organisation – with full involvement of the executive leadership team being a critical enabler for success. As part of the customization, it is important that leadership teams and employees be provided with multiple opportunities for active learning, reflection and practice because this affords individuals the opportunity to examine how their behaviors reflect their biases and which mechanisms to use to prevent unwanted incidents from ever occurring again.

This is not a task to be taken lightly because the mind is fragile and sometimes it can be challenging to unlearn and divorce ourselves from things we learned in our childhood. Over the past few years the world has seen well-known companies incurring significant financial losses as a result of being sued for unfair treatment and negligence. Going forward, prevention is better than cure – but this requires pro-activity.

Furthermore, the reason many do not want to confront these biases is because they make us uncomfortable and we always want to look “perfect” in front of people. We are anxious about stuttering or making a mistake in front of others because this might taint our image. Social etiquette and being politically correct governs our actions and how we think. We can challenge our unconscious biases by deciding to be actively conscious about our own internal reactions, whether positive or negative.

For example, in South Africa (and most African countries that were colonized), we have a deep and recent history rooted in racial prejudice and oppression. Any discussions involving these sensitive topics which make people of all races uncomfortable and “on-guard”. To tackle this, we need to be able to openly talk about such issues despite the initial awkwardness. Thereafter we can get to work and start addressing how people view us based on elements such as background, standard of living and educational qualifications, among others. Being self-aware and conscious is critical because once you know thyself, you will not allow people to impact you negatively with their stereotypes or project their insecurities onto you.

Nigerian feminist and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” For that reason, it is imperative for us to sometimes step out of ourselves and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. This gives us an opportunity to engage better with people and build solid relationships. This is central to team building and improving productivity in the workplace.

What individuals can do to mitigate the impact of unconscious bias in the workplace

It all starts with the self. If you harbour negative feelings about someone ask yourself why and assess what triggers those biases. After confronting these biases, try to unite with your team and find blending grounds between team members. As a black woman it is possible to find common ground with an Indian man provided you give yourself a chance to look beyond his aesthetic features. Organizations should also provide ongoing training and change the culture of the workplace if it’s not working. Research has shown that employees are more productive in a progressive and open culture.

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