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Three Questions to Help You Uncover Bias in the Workplace

By Natalie Holder | Oct. 21, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

Diversity and inclusion have definitely grown up over the past 20 years. Studies have shown that diversity management tops the list of priorities that businesses will address in the coming years. And in the last 10 years, there has been an explosion of senior-level diversity officer roles in corporations, higher education and law firms. With all these resources being put toward increasing diversity, why have most organizations not achieved the change they seek?

You might not have an answer because despite much societal advancement, there are reminders that people are treated unfairly because of their faith, how they look or how they sound.

Our silence might also be acknowledging that we do not know how to achieve the diversity we seek.

Diversity Is Different Than Inclusion

In the workplace, part of the issue is not knowing the difference between diversity and inclusion. Think of the high school lunch table as a metaphor for experiencing the distinction between the two.

Do you remember what your high school cafeteria looked like, sounded like, and what it smelled like? You probably had a group of friends that you ate lunch with every day. Imagine that one day you asked a different group if you could sit with them and they enthusiastically made room for you. However, after a few minutes at this new table, you noticed that you were not a part of the conversation. People were making plans for the weekend without asking if you would like to join them. When you tried to tell a joke, everyone stared at you dismissively. People talked over you and cut you off mid-sentence. While you were invited to sit at the table, you were not invited to engage at the table.

Many organizations do a great job of recruiting for the diversity they seek but fail to create inclusive environments.

Many organizations do a great job of recruiting for the diversity they seek but fail to create inclusive environments.

Engagement is a measurement of a person’s inclusion in an organization and drives the overall quality of the human capital brought to the table.

American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” states that everyone has needs that must be met before he or she can reach a new level of self-actualization. In the workplace, employees’ safety and psychological needs are most likely taken care of because their jobs provide the financial resources they need to clothe and feed themselves. However, the difficulty in most workplaces starts with the social needs.

Creating a Sense of Belonging

When you have friends and positive relationships at work, it creates a sense of belonging. Next come your esteem needs. We all need to have our work recognized by senior leadership. If employees never hear they are doing a good job, they may doubt their work and themselves.

Lastly, if all your other needs are met, you may reach Maslow’s level of self-actualization at work. Self-actualization is the point where you take initiative and solve the critical problems in your organization. When your social and esteem needs are met, you have the space, room and security to think about new and different ways to contribute to your company’s business goals.

Attrition Is Costly

If one of these rungs on the ladder to engagement is missing, however, it could financially impact the organization. For instance, employee turnover is one consequence of not having engagement. If your organization had 75,000 employees, 50% of whom were nonwhite women, but it saw a 3.6% attrition rate with this population, it would cost the organization $2.2 million if it costs $10,000 to replace an employee.

So how and why does exclusion still take place when there are direct benefits to inclusion? Often, without even realizing it, people engage in micro-inequities that are driven by their unconscious biases. Micro-inequities are the subtle gestures, comments and interactions that make people feel included or excluded by others. It’s feeling ignored when you’re talking to someone and they glance at their watch when you make an important point. It’s being left out of decision-making discussions on your work product. It’s being left off an email chain when you should have been included.

Think of micro-inequities as the waves that threaten to erode the wooden stilts your beautiful beach house sits on. Over time, the waves deteriorate the stilts, often in ways that are unseen by the eye.

While there are a number of ways to uncover exclusion and unconscious bias in an organization—and eventually eradicate it—the process may start with three questions:

  1. Is there a team member who would view my feedback as negative if I give them any feedback at all?
  2. Who on the team do I dislike working with?
  3. Which person on the team makes me say, “I am having such a difficult time getting to know this person”?


Most likely the person or people who surface in your responses are feeling excluded from your work groups.

In a training session for a large government agency, there was a senior leader who admitted that while he was committed to diversity as a cause, he was not putting his actions into practice with certain individuals on his team. He courageously admitted that he created a self-fulfilling prophecy where his favorite employees were excelling and the others, whom he did not connect with and had ignored, were struggling. Invitations to his afternoon coffee excursions to Starbucks were extended only to the people on his team whom he connected to and liked.

Even those with the best intentions have difficulty tying their words to their actions. Creating an inclusive culture takes shaking our unconscious minds awake and questioning our actions.

Natalie Holder is an employment lawyer, speaker, corporate trainer and author of “Exclusion: Strategies for Increasing Diversity in Recruitment, Retention and Promotion.” As the co-founder of the New York State Bar Association’s Labor and Employment’s Diversity Fellowship, she developed strategies to increase diversity and retention for various bar associations. In 2013, NYU honored her with the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award. For more information, visit www.QuestDiversity.com.

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