Many organizations have a non-discrimination policy that reads something like this: Our organization values` all employees and job candidates as unique individuals, and we welcome the variety of experiences they bring to our company. As such, we have a strict non-discrimination policy. We believe everyone should be treated equally regardless of race, sex, gender identification, sexual orientation, national origin, native language, religion, age disability, marital status, citizenship, genetic information, pregnancy, or any other characteristic protected by law. There is a reason these statements are so prevalent. All of us, by nature, have bias and discrimination. We choose our significant others, the music we listen to, and the colors we wear. But when that discriminating nature excludes bullies, limits opportunities, or underpays because of reasons other than merit it is a concern. Sometimes it’s deliberate and sometimes it is unconscious.
I served on a consulting team. We had formal and informal meetings with employees. I happened to know two employees who happened to be African American. In an informal conversation, they told me how much they respected and appreciated the department head’s vision. Later that evening the consulting team met privately to compare notes. The consulting team leader said he felt good about most of the staff but wasn’t sure about the two staff members who sat across from him at the afternoon group meeting. It turns out it was the two who had stated how much they supported the department head. He did not know them but had a negative bias against them.
Rather than wait for a staged diversity-inclusion workshop, this was the perfect time to have a crucial conversation about unconscious bias. The intent of the conversation would not have been to shame but to allow himself to reflect and self-correct or explain the reasons for his perception.
Unfortunately talking openly about bias associated with difference, isn’t easy which is why people rarely do. The reason for this seems to be a fear of anything that might make dominant groups uncomfortable. Others believe talking about these issues is divisive. If done incorrectly it can be but done correctly it can be an opportunity for enlightenment. I informed the lead that his perception was inaccurate, but that is where the conversation ended. If it had been a racially homogenous consulting team that leader’s comments would not have been challenged.
The “isms”, the elements of non-discrimination policy are the elephant in the room no one wants to acknowledge, but should, In doing so, the objective is to help make things better than they were before the encounter. It’s a delicate balance. Work relationships work for those who work on them.