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Meet Diversity Goals Through Bias Disruption

Diversity Goals

Following a viral incident in which two black men were arrested because they hadn’t placed an order while waiting to meet a business associate, Starbucks announced it would close 8,000 U.S. stores for anti-bias training. Academics claim that, done right, such training encourages more mindful, less automatic decision-making, but science does not support that argument.. In fact, such training may actually increase biased behaviors.

Diversity Goals Clash with Biases

Interesting studies have been published in the field of diversity research. Many relate to the business benefits of diversity among company employees. For instance, greater racial and gender diversity in companies have been linked to increased sales revenue, more customers and higher profits. Companies with more female executives are more profitable. Teams with a wider range of educational and work backgrounds tend to be more innovative. And while you might think it obvious that a wider range of work experience and knowledge would result in more innovation, it appears to be true that social diversity (racial, gender and background) also enhances innovation. Trend watchers Contagious recently reported that ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform non-ethnically diverse companies.

Diverse teams compel us to confront assumptions, see new perspectives and simply think about problems differently than if we are in more homogenous groups. More diverse groups also nudge us to prepare more carefully, give more thought to decisions and how we solve problems. Diversity can urge us to dig deeper, look for more novel solutions… to be, in fact, more creative. This is a big reason why ad agencies and marketing firms are setting diversity goals.

But inherent biases have hampered diversity recruiting and hiring. Business leaders fear diversity may generate internal conflicts, despite studies showing that expectation of conflict is usually over-estimated. The real issue is that for many people, homogenous teams “feel better.” People don’t want the discomfort or friction [link to 2698]that comes with new people, ideas or the basic changes that they associate with diversity, so they fall back on unconscious biases and rationalize their ways to “safe” choices.

In other words, we too often opt for “easy” over “more difficult” or “more challenging.” To make matters worse, we also suffer from bias blind spots—an inability to identify or even see our own biases. Human nature is a puzzlement…

Common biases fall into one of five types: similarity, expedience, experience, distance and safety (SEEDS). See this strong article at Strategy+Business for a breakdown of bias types.

Culture and Individual Values Alignment

A second issue is that, if the culture of the organization is not inclusive, individual values can supersede a company’s stated values and make nonsense of diversity goals. By inclusive, we mean welcoming different ethnic and racial groups, even celebrating their differences, as opposed to demanding that people be “colorblind.” The former is about being positive and treating each other with respect; the latter implies that someone is to blame for diversity failure, and needs to be corrected for bad behavior. 

Aside from problems arising from inherent biases and cultural roadblocks, the mere perception of bias can cripple employee engagement, lowering productivity and reducing dedication to culture and values. Business leaders need to make a strong, clear-eyed commitment to diversity and building a bias-aware culture, so employees will trust in and support diversity goals.

Four factors that can correct or sustain positive perceptions:

  • An inclusive culture– Leaders welcome employee voices, listen to them and act upon their input. Also, recognition is accorded to those who present good ideas.
  • Diverse leadership– When diversity is embraced at the very top of a company, it is more likely to be embraced throughout the business; values and hiring/promotion practices will be more inclusive and reward will be based on merit.
  • Leader mentoring/sponsorship– Diversity can only improve top to bottom if leaders actively sponsor and promote groups often held back by biases.
  • Clear policies – Reduce the need for employees to make decisions that enable inherent biases to come into play.* 

Working to correct employee perceptions is often more successful than forcing unconscious bias training on managers and leaders; this can lead to pushback from resentful managers who feel they are being blamed for failing diversity initiatives. A focus on improving perceptions keeps everyone positive and schools the entire organization in better engagement and retention practices.

The most successful approach to reversing biased cultures is setting measurable goals for diversity efforts. This might include committing to posting jobs on minority job websites to attract diverse candidates, or using blind hiring strategies (blocking candidate names, school and association affiliations, etc.) until candidates have been screened for qualifications and experience. Changing processes to be less biased serves to help employees adopt less biased behaviors. Those changes also alter the culture as a whole.

Employees want opportunities to advance and grow. When bias, or a perception of bias due to ingrained practices stifles employee advancement, employees will disengage. That translates into withheld ideas and support, and ultimately to people seeking other employment. These responses impose a high cost on companies. If your agency is trying to improve diversity through hiring and internal policies, make sure that your culture, policies and leadership are ready to push beyond the ingrained biases that hamper diversity efforts. 

* Starbucks previously allowed individual managers to set store policy. The Philadelphia store’s anti-loitering policy called for asking people who didn’t make a purchase to please leave, then calling police if there were problems, According to the store’s regular, white customers who witnessed the incident, the policy was not applied to all non-buying visitors, only to the two black men. Clear policies applied evenly reduce the influence of individual bias. Shortly after the incident, Starbucks corporate required all stores to welcome visitors even if they don’t make a purchase, and open Starbucks restrooms to anyone. The firm also revised guidelines for handling “disruptive” customers, making them far more specific.


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