Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: Moving Beyond Unconscious Bias Training and Accounting for Systemic Factors

Are you looking to increase performance, engage employees in a meaningful way, and overcome the harmful effects of bias? Unconscious bias training may be one option but often overlook the root causes. This article covers four strategies to consider when minimizing unconscious bias is a priority.

| April 11, 2022

Written by: Chiara Brega

Unconscious Biases and Organizational Change

The goals of contemporary diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are far-reaching. They aim to offer equitable opportunities across socioeconomic, racial, and gender lines – reshaping public life in ways that range from fairer hiring and admissions practices to shifts in where we live, what we buy, and whom we listen to. However, in corporate environments, DEI focuses primarily on three things: diversity among employees, equitable hiring and promotion, and inclusive work environments.

As companies have scrambled to make progress toward those goals over the last decade, in the face of shifting public opinion and legislative and legal pressure, one of the tools they have turned to most often is Unconscious Bias Trainings (UBT) or seminars. UBT promises to help participants recognize and temper implicit, subconscious beliefs that are prejudicial or bigoted. Most famously, for instance, medical professionals often underestimate the pain of Black patients (leading to worse outcomes and delays in treatment), and police officers are quicker to take violent action against Black people. In the workplace, the same kinds of bias can determine what opportunities individual employees receive – for advancement, for leadership, or just to be heard. The adverse outcomes of this kind of bias aren’t limited to unfairness or low morale; bias means that the best ideas won’t be adopted, and the best workers won’t be able to make their full impact. This matters for company performance.

That’s why it’s such bad news that UBT fails to meet most of its goals. Among police officers, UBT changes individual attitudes and beliefs…but not the way officers conduct themselves. Among doctors, there are calls for UBT to be reimagined to increase its efficacy. And in biotech, as in other high-intensity, highly competitive environments, even the best UBT won’t overcome the structural and systemic factors that prevent companies from getting the most out of their workforces. No amount of UBT can change outcomes without day-to-day attention and support from management, who need to promote new practices and embrace workplace diversity. Simply put: UBT increases awareness of specific problems but doesn’t change behavior or address root causes.

Addressing Root Causes

In our view, companies looking to increase performance, engage employees and overcome the harmful effects of bias have several means of doing so. UBT can help but must be complemented and supported by these more systemic measures.

The first is a shift in assumptions and day-to-day operations and management. Employee complaints and concerns should be treated as evidence of the state of the workplace as a cultural and social environment rather than as issues restricted to individuals. Especially if complaints or concerns display consistent patterns, the workplace environment is likely hostile or exclusive, involving microaggressions and small, everyday forms of discrimination. These problems can then be combatted using several policies and strategies, ranging from explicit training to affinity groups, inclusive messaging, and opportunities for high-quality intergroup contact.

The second set of changes involves advancement processes. Affinity bias causes us to have higher opinions of people similar to ourselves – men promoting men, for instance. Along with other similar biases, it must be counteracted by incorporating objective measures into the way you evaluate employees for promotion. Think of these objective measures as guardrails, tools to prevent overly subjective assessments from leading the company off track. Similarly, multiple people – ideally representing divergent perspectives – should contribute to each evaluation.

Third, many companies need to rework the way they approach hiring. Here, too, objective guardrails are needed, especially for critical hires in executive positions and other early leadership roles. For example, one significant risk is posed by over-reliance on employee referrals, which restricts a company’s hiring pool to the professional networks of existing employees. If those employees are relatively homogeneous, referrals will never succeed in expanding the company’s diversity. To counteract that effect, set up rigorous, fair, and objectively supported hiring processes for most positions; for those crucial leadership roles, it can be helpful to involve a professional team able to balance diversity considerations against experience, expertise, fit, and potential.

Finally, it’s always worth investing time and resources into re-evaluating company policies in their historical and cultural context. The most obvious examples involve clothing, dress, and conduct codes that often treat white European male styles as the only acceptable options, but other aspects of company policy – from holiday schedules to celebrations to how employees are expected to communicate – may also benefit from a more culturally informed re-appraisal.

Ready to realize your future?