When many people think about companies workplace misconduct, overt harassment and discrimination of employees often come to mind. Whether it’s a coworker making a lewd comment or a manager holding certain employees to a different standard than other people, many forms of misconduct are clearly and immediately visible. However, there are other forms of marginalization that may be harder to spot, but which are no less hurtful for their victims.
For example, unconscious bias is a form of discrimination that inadvertently reinforces negative stereotypes and changes people behavior. This type of bias can take the form of subtle exchanges that denigrate employees from a minority group (even if they’re unintentional) – which are commonly referred to as microaggressions. These destructive behaviors can be directed at employees on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic background, age, disability, and so on, and they often decrease employee morale. While it’s essential for companies to develop policies and behavioral norms that prevent harassment and discrimination, another critical test of the health of a company’s culture is whether or not employees are cognizant of the less obvious ways they can hurt or alienate their coworkers.
To prevent and address these negative interactions, companies need to enact cultural change at the most basic level. There are many ingrained assumptions that may seem harmless to employees who aren’t members of marginalized groups, but which are anything but to the people who’ve been dealing with prejudice (whether unintentional or not) their entire lives. With that in mind, here are the top three ways to handle bias and prejudice in the workplace.
Build a culture of belonging
It’s crucial for employees and managers to understand the distinction between diversity and inclusion. Even if a company has a diverse workforce and policies in place to prevent harassment and discrimination, these measures are no guarantee that employees will actually feel included. Companies have to facilitate sustainable cultural change if they want to address marginalization at the most fundamental level.
According to a recent Gartner report, 70 percent of employees say their company “fails to inform them of opportunities to promote inclusion in their day-to-day work.” Gartner mentions a few of these opportunities: 1) the elimination of “outsiderness,” which means actively promoting individuality and celebrating diversity, 2) the solicitation of employee feedback and input, with an eye toward amplifying all voices, and 3) the implementation of benefits and initiatives that embrace diversity, such as events that “highlight underrepresented groups” such as Women’s History Month or Juneteenth.
Companies should also recognize that certain manifestations of unconscious bias – such as microaggressions – can be teaching moments for employees. According to a 2019 poll conducted by SurveyMonkey and Fortune, more than a quarter of Americans say they’ve definitely experienced a microaggression at work, while 36 percent have witnessed one. This means there are millions of opportunities for employees to educate one another about the pain caused by unconscious biases, as well as millions of good reasons for companies to prioritize education about these biases at the institutional level.
Facilitate peer-to-peer interaction and inclusion
The most effective tools for changing a company’s culture are inspiration and awareness. While it’s essential for companies to have clearly defined policies in place that cover harassment, discrimination, and any other abuses in the workplace, sustainable cultural change requires more than a top-down approach. It requires employees to build trust and rapport, while moving toward alignment with core values that will help each other thrive.
According to a survey conducted by Degreed, far more employees say they learn from peers within the company than from HR departments, online searches, or external professional networks. Peers exert a powerful influence on us from a young age, which is why it’s no surprise that people continue to develop frameworks for proper behavior based on how their colleagues and friends act in the workplace. This can create problems when toxic work environments become self-perpetuating, but it also presents opportunities for employees to learn from one another and strengthen relationships.
In the most fundamental sense, a company’s culture is an expression of the attitudes and behaviors of its employees. Companies can steer these attitudes and behaviors in the right direction by setting the tone on contentious subjects of discussion, resisting false and unhealthy narratives (like the idea that minority employees were hired or promoted for reasons other than merit), and encouraging employees to welcome the perspectives of all their colleagues.
Promote education as a core value
Although it’s certainly true that some forms of bias and prejudice are products of malicious intent, many others arise from misunderstandings or a lack of awareness. That said, companies should have no tolerance for harassment or discrimination of any kind. A company’s leadership is responsible for ensuring that employees are in no doubt about what constitutes unacceptable behavior. And considering the fact that employees cite their “boss or mentor” as an important source of learning, these situations should often be educational first and punitive second.
Education should be a basic value at your company, particularly with regard to diversity and inclusion. Employees can learn how to be more empathic, respectful, and tolerant, which are all foundational elements of a diverse and inclusive workplace. For example, employees should be given the resources they need to collaborate with and learn from one another – from the mediation of disputes to open forums for employees to discuss their ideas, concerns, and experiences. This is all part of developing a culture of learning – a set of values and processes that prioritize education at your company. Learning cultures don’t just make it easier for employees to communicate and collaborate – they also lead to sustainable cultural change by exposing employees to a wider range of perspectives and teaching them how to embrace the characteristics that make their colleagues unique.
Unconscious bias and discrimination are daily realities for many American workers, and they must be resisted at every level of your organization. But when they’re addressed properly, this can lead to mutual understanding and a healthier workplace for everyone.