Here’s an interesting question for you to ponder on Martin Luther King Day, posed in this piece by Simma Lieberman on the Workforce Diversity Network: “Before you spend your next dollar on unconscious-bias training, ask yourselves if you just want people to have a good day, [and] forget or not apply what they learn, or if you want ongoing change that will make you a benchmark organization and the employer of choice.”
Though she doesn’t exactly say the former is generally what happens in companies that espouse diversity transformations, it’s implied in her piece, How Can Unconscious Bias Training Go Wrong?
Basically, she says, if you really want to establish a meaningful and effective diversity and inclusion culture without favoritism, one that results in “breakthrough innovation, [you need to instill] transformation at every level, risk-taking and the willingness to be uncomfortable.”
And that starts at the top, she says: “The CEO and other people on the executive team need to be the first ones to learn about unconscious bias and how it impacts their leadership behavior. We have our clients take the Implicit Association Test from Harvard, to be aware of their own biases. Transformation begins at the top and doesn’t stop!”
In her helpful numbered list of ways to add value to unconscious-bias training, Lieberman also stresses the need to “involve and seek input from people who manage all levels of the recruiting process. They need to be aware of their unconscious bias in the whole hiring process from where and how they recruit, how they write the job description, how they conduct the interview, and ways in which they develop rapport,” she writes.
Which reminds me of a piece I posted last Martin Luther King Day, “Favoritism is No Friend of Diversity.” In it, Kansas City Star writer Michelle T. Johnson gets at the heart of just how insidious and nebulous favoritism is among managers and HR leaders when they’re making personnel decisions:
“What does favoritism even look like? Favoritism is usually about choice. In some workplaces, the work and the people who do it don’t have much variance in how the work is done and who does it. However, in other workplaces, work decisions are made frequently — assignments, shifts, territories, days off. With most decisions come subjective judgments. Every industry and workplace is so different, yet everyone can probably relate to some area of the job that bosses influence [subjectively] at least weekly.
“People are quick to defend their decisions, saying they base them on the best person to do the job. But over time, what conditions have you created to allow, for example, one person to inevitably do the job better than another? And if that has happened, what is the reason? Is it that the person reminds you of yourself or has similar interests, or because the person has a personality you find easier to get along with?”
Dave Kipe, chief operating officer for New York-based ABCO HVACR Supply + Solutions, who describes himself as “passionate about leadership behavior and the impact it can have in our workplace and our lives,” got back to me after that favoritism post, underscoring the need for business leaders to be more “self-aware and conscious of their implicit behavior [and bias-tinged] body language.” He calls their failures in this regard a “pitfall many leaders fall into, but don’t even acknowledge exists.”
I reached out to him about Lieberman’s post as well, considering how closely intertwined unconscious bias and favoritism are. He had a lot to say:
“I think most of us have this inflated self-perception that we are unconditionally ethical and perfectly unbiased. We are confident in our decision-making abilities and proud that we are ‘great judges of people.’ However, research has shown that’s simply not true.
“In Lieberman’s case in point, the employees embraced the ‘unconscious bias’ training, but the company didn’t sustain that focus; therefore, nothing changed. Her point that ‘there is an unconscious — and sometimes conscious — bias that people at the lower levels don’t need to be involved or won’t understand the new culture’ really resonated with me. Company leaders must engage the entire organization and drop the narcissistic attitude that employees are just too dumb or too ignorant to understand.
“Unconscious bias in the workplace is seldom discussed, but it’s impact is deep and, if uncontrolled, it can be destructive. Training is a critical component of creating a culture of inclusion, but it’s money and time wasted if not supported by the organization.”