sustainable workplace diversity

Anti-bias education is not a one-time institutional inoculation against the deleterious effects of group-based prejudices. Lack of inclusion for members of historically marginalized groups has been hundreds of years in the making, so it’s unrealistic to expect that you can make lasting changes overnight, or even over the course of a handful of isolated diversity training sessions. Instead, a comprehensive and long-term plan is needed. This plan must assess and revise (as needed) existing policies, procedures, and programs in the organization that can adversely affect employees from particular groups or allow other’s bias to impact them negatively, implement and evaluate new educational trainings, and signal inclusivity for marginalized groups in the workplace through physical features and organizational norms.

A sustainable approach requires thinking about diversity and inclusion from a broader perspective. Abiding change means implementing a diversity and inclusion strategy that adapts to evolving social issues and to changes within your own organization. It is an ongoing commitment to self-and organizational-reflection, evaluation, and re-evaluation. Reducing bias in a lasting way is not about solving a static one-time “problem”; it is about creating a cultural environment where diversity and inclusion are valued and where ongoing improvement in addressing conscious and unconscious biases is encouraged and fostered. The goal of a diversity and inclusion strategy is to create an environment in which, because people from diverse backgrounds and with different backgrounds can thrive, the organization will be more successful.  Here’s how to create an identity-inclusive environment where individuals have the skills necessary, and feel confident in their ability, to foster equality and inclusion in today’s increasingly diverse work environment.

Step 1: Assess the diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) climate in your organization

A critical first step for implementing change is documenting the extent that bias potentially operates – including how it is perceived to affect employees –in your organization using a climate assessment.  Because people generally, including your employees and management, have been exposed to negative stereotypes about marginalized groups in the media and by others since childhood, conscious and unconscious biases are deeply embedded in the ways people perceive and interact with the world. It can be difficult to recognize these biases both within ourselves and others unless we are specifically looking for them. Conducting a climate assessment in a professional and thorough way is thus a foundation action for change because it forms the basis for specifically targeted efforts to promote diversity and inclusion.

Step 2: Examine your policies for biases

Assessing and addressing HR procedures for bias leakage and stereotype/identity threat triggers is an essential third step. An independent DEI consultant can help you identify bias in your policies that may not be immediately apparent. After examining your job descriptions and performance standards, they can help revise both to ensure that these materials do not unintentionally keep talented people from applying or, even worse, evoke negative stereotypes about any particular group. They can also assist in developing employee evaluation procedures based on clear measurable outcomes and specific behaviors. Doing so reduces the potential for unintended biases in employee performance evaluations.

Step 3: Utilize sustainable diversity training tactics informed by the most current research

New advancements in enhancing organizational diversity and inclusion are occurring daily. Thus, trainings designed or based on research from even a few years ago are not only less effective than they could be, but also they can be ineffective for addressing today’s issues and can even be detrimental. That’s why we utilize only the most recent and cutting-edge research when developing our trainings. For example, our trainings are very intentional in use of strategies to encourage a “learning orientation” (i.e., perceiving intergroup interactions as an opportunity for learning and growth) rather than the much more common “performance” orientation (i.e., perceiving such interactions as a “test” where one must prove how unbiased one is). A sustainable approach to diversity and inclusion requires staying current with training techniques that incorporate new knowledge about the root causes, symptoms and effects of bias and addresses the current social and organizational issues. Further, a one-off training will not foster lasting change. A continuous learning process involving state-of-the-art training supplemented by regular refresher courses is necessary.

Diversity training pitfalls to avoid

Having good intentions does not ensure your DEI training will be effective. Be sure to approach the question of what elements to include in a deliberate, thoughtful way that considers the unique characteristics of your organization. It is also vital to include actionable, evidence-based strategies in your training. One of the problems we often see with less rigorous, non-scientific approaches is that they focus on raising awareness of bias but do not then provide participants with tools for effectively combating bias.

The evidence suggests that learning about bias without also learning strategies for reducing its effects can harm participants.  Being reminded of how bias negatively impacts their lives can be psychologically threatening for members of marginalized groups and can impede performance at work. Moreover, for members of high-status groups, learning they have unconscious biases that cause them to engage in discriminatory behavior can be extremely upsetting, leading them to feel guilty about their behavior, hopeless about their ability to change, and anxious when interacting with members of marginalized groups. They may even avoid interacting with co-workers from certain groups for fear of unintentionally exhibiting bias. Diversity training thus needs to help members of an organization learn to work effectively together and to respect and benefit – personally and institutionally – from diversity within the organization.

Another factor to consider is how the training motivates participants to address their biases. Emphasizing only external motivations to control prejudice (e.g., to conform with egalitarian norms) can actually increase bias; emphasizing internal motivations (e.g., to act in line with one’s personal closely-held values) is a better strategy.

Step 4: Don’t underestimate the impact of the physical workplace environment

Bias can permeate a workplace in subtle ways. Assess and correct environmental cues that certain groups belong, and others do not. Examine your workplace for stereotype-reinforcing images, decor, documents and artwork and make changes accordingly.

For example, a successful corporation showcases framed photographs of previous CEOs and senior management in a prominent location. Closer inspection reveals that these individuals are all Caucasian men in a particular age range. What message does this send to staff about who belongs in a senior role and who does not? Paying attention to these less obvious areas of bias can open your eyes to the implicit messages that are received by your staff.

Is your organization’s diversity policy set up to achieve true equality, full inclusion, and deep diversity that endure? We can develop lasting solutions for your organization using theoretically sound, data-driven, evidence-based strategies. Contact us today.

Reference List

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