Talking bias: Starting the dialog on workplace inclusion is tough but neces-sary

Stacy Wescoe, BridgeTower Media//September 4, 2019

Talking bias: Starting the dialog on workplace inclusion is tough but neces-sary

Stacy Wescoe, BridgeTower Media//September 4, 2019

“Most employers have a goal to create a safe and inclusive environment for their employees,” said Adrian Shanker, director of the Bradbury Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown.

While there are, of course, some businesses that cling to certain biases against race, religion or gender he said, “the vast majority want to do the right thing,” he said.

Unfortunately even the best intentioned companies, leaders, managers and coworkers can unintentionally leave an individual or group feeling left out.

Those working toward improving inclusiveness in the workplace often refer to it as unconscious bias.

But getting people to talk about bias can be tough, even in the most open and tolerant of workplaces.

No one is intentionally being discriminatory, but actions and policies can impact some minority groups without a company’s management realizing it, experts say.

Addressing the issue can be difficult. People tend to shy away when you use words like racism or sexism and tend to tune out when the subject is broached, said Scott Blair, chief diversity officer for Northampton Community College.

“It’s really a tightrope,” said Danielle Adams, chief empowerment officer of Queen Suite, personal and professional development.

She said raising awareness of situations that can be exclusionary without making people feel like they’re being intolerant is the first and most important step when trying to enact positive change.

“We all have biases,” Blair said. “Let’s just put that out there. It’s who we are and it’s the environment we were raised in.”

But, he said, it’s usually not intentional and people don’t even realize they’re doing it.

Helping people to the idea of identifying biases is the first step to addressing them, she said. It’s important because a more inclusive environment doesn’t just benefit the few, it creates a better overall working environment and, in the long run, improves business.

To broach the subject of unconscious bias, Blair uses a story about being left handed that he learned from a colleague.

“When you go into an elementary school classroom, for example, there might be three pairs of left-handed scissors. But, what if there are four or five left-handed students in the class?” Those students have less access because their needs weren’t considered, he said.

Or, he said, what if as a left-handed student you walk into a classroom and all of the left-handed desks are grouped in the back left corner.

“That’s going to make you feel different and less valued,” he said.

He said the analogy shows that perspective of another person – regardless of your feelings towards them – can impact them.

“You have to challenge the belief and be willing to break down that barrier,” Adams said.

Shanker said there are some things that can impact LGBT workers, that might not have occurred to employers.

Insurance policies may not cover alternative family situations, or similarly a company may provide maternity and paternity leave after the birth of a baby, but not offer similar leave for parents after an adoption.

Many policies may simply be out of date. Dress codes are often a good example, especially when they are gender based, Adam said.

“Policies even from 20 years ago need to be revisited and rewritten,” she said.

Examples could be requirements that a woman wear heels or that men are forbidden from wearing earrings.

“If wearing earrings in the workplace is a safety issue that’s fine, but then no one should be allowed to wear earrings, not just men,” said Shanker.

Adams noted that California recently passed a law that prohibits employers from dress codes that can disproportionally affect people of color, such as certain hair styles.

There are small things that can be done in the workplace to make it more inclusive.

One may be making sure not to schedule important meetings on days that might be a religious holiday for some employees, making them choose between their job and their observance.

The Bradbury-Sullivan Center addresses gender identity by posting employees preferred gender pronouns (he, his, him – she, hers, her – they, their, them) on their web profiles so that others can address them in the way the employee is most comfortable.

It’s also a tactic that NCC is starting to roll out slowly as well, and Blair said at the very least it is “getting dialog started” on campus about gender identity.

For those with physical disabilities that need to be addressed, simple actions can address them such as placing brail on signs or making sure there is a ramp to a stage or podium during company presentations so those in a wheelchair or with other mobility issues have equal access to speak.

Blair noted that accommodations made for physical challenges have historically benefited the larger community.

Curb cuts for example, were created for people in wheelchairs, but people with children in strollers or are pushing carts have also found them to be invaluable.

He said putting changes in that perspective helps everyone understand the value of inclusiveness.

And it’s not just making the working environment better for staff, a more inclusive workplace can boost a business’ productivity and revenue.

“It gives you the tools to properly support clients,” Blair said. “If your decision makers have limited experiences on the needs of some of your clients that can hurt business. Diversity offers a wider perspective on what your clients are looking for.”

Blair said that is why he believes the conversation on diversity in the workplace needs to begin with a conversation on why diversity and inclusion is so important.

“It’s not just because this is the thing to do now. It gives them the tools to prosper,” he said.