Dear Colleagues:

The conversation we need to be having about unconscious bias right now is especially important for marketers and communicators, since our words shape the course for the brands and organizations we represent.  Unconscious bias , also known as implicit bias, is the collection of underlying attitudes and stereotypes that people attribute to another person or group that affect how they understand and engage with that person or group ( ).  

By learning and engaging with our colleagues, we can work to better identify what bias looks like and stop it in its tracks. In every organization, this requires awareness, understanding and leadership from the C-Suite and at all levels.

Being more deliberate and thoughtful about how we express ourselves can make colleagues feel seen, heard and respected, something we all need in order to contribute the best we have to offer to the collective enterprise.

Read on to explore if you say what you mean and mean what you say.

Words Have Power: Conquering Unconscious Bias 

How Can I Make Things Better?

Very few of us go to work intending to hurt or insult our colleagues, but if we do happen to make a mistake, however innocently, is it right to expect the upset party to "just get over it" and let it pass? For generations, workers and executives have been operating under an unwritten set of assumptions regarding behavior and communications that have been misunderstood or irrelevant to many.

It's time to replace outdated "rules" with inclusive, respectful and empathetic communications. With the growing conversation about unconscious bias and inclusion in the workplace, we have an opportunity to recognize communications and actions at work that offend, undermine or demean and to use these discussions to create a truly diverse and inclusive workforce, improve decision-making, foster better cooperation and collaboration, and support effective outcomes for employees and the workplace.  

We all have biases
; it's impossible to get through life without some notions and conclusions picked up from our upbringing, experience, media or environment. Social Psychologist Tony Greenwald developed Harvard University's Implicit Association Test to help gauge personal biases. The problem with unconscious bias is that it is just that -  unconscious  - and can take different forms, such as: 
  • Affinit y bias: Tendency to gravitate toward people with similar likes, interests and experiences
  • Confirmation  bias: Drawing conclusions about a person based on personal beliefs and prejudices rather than merit 
  • Gender  bias: Tendency to favor one gender over the other
Acknowledging and committing to bring these and other biases to the surface will enable both leaders and their team members to blunt their negative impact. It's essential to reshape the way we think, because our words should be used for effective communications, not as unintentional weapons.  

All employees benefit from a positive racial identity as well as being able to feel, not just intellectualize, how racism harms all of us.  [SOURCE: "
How to Unlearn Racism ,"  Scientific American , October 2020].  Over decades, the American population has become increasingly multi-cultural and we must update our communication habits to embrace this new reality. There's no going back. For example, what one perceives to be a compliment can actually be offensive to the other person because it is rooted in stereotypical assumptions. 

Non-verbal actions can also reflect bias, such as:
  • Interrupting or dismissing ideas presented by non-white or female employees in a meeting while listening attentively to a similar idea floated by a white or male colleague 
  • Forming teams where just one woman or minority employee is consistently selected (tokenism)
  • Consistently promoting individuals who are white or male to managerial positions over other qualified individuals, leaving female and minority employees feeling they're not welcome and that opportunities for advancement are limited, despite their achievements or seniority with the company.
  • Making assumptions about a person based on their first or last name (e.g., Kate vs. Kadijah or Jones vs. Juarez) 
These biases sometimes seep unconsciously into our conversations, emails, meetings and marketing materials with the unintentional consequence of marginalizing individuals or entire segments of people.  Diverse inspiration and ideas might never be expressed or nurtured in situations where women, LGBTQ+, Black and minority employees experience such bias. This could lead to one-time misunderstandings or hurt the bigger picture, where Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals are not able to advance at work, or a brand's competitive edge is lost.

Having open conversations with colleagues or creating role-play communications training can help employees become more sensitized and conscious of when and where such biases occur. However, efforts to raise awareness and call out such biases need to take place regularly over time to be effective.  Continually working toward establishing and maintaining a workplace where bias is unacceptable and people work together to improve the culture must be endorsed and modeled from the C-Suite down through every level of an organization.

Combating Bias Outfront and Behind the Scenes

In modern, diverse workplaces those that achieve true inclusion are those that encourage individuals to bring their whole selves to work. Therefore, it is paramount for employers to communicate throughout the enterprise that they will not tolerate any sort of bias that undermines an inclusive work environment. Creating a respectful and inclusive workplace takes daily diligence by everyone, particularly those in positions of power and privilege who have an obligation to ally with and advocate for their coworkers from historically marginalized communities.  Obligation , because getting the best from every employee means all must be and feel valued and have a clear path to share their ideas and work product - and every manager must be invested in that. 

Communicating and thriving in such a workplace takes a heightened sense of awareness, vigilance and active listening.  In case it is not clear, it is not helpful to focus on assigning blame. The goal is to elevate awareness and instill a culture that ensures healthy, productive workspaces for everyone. 

Developing and maintaining a 24/7 culture of respect and understanding requires consistent communications in front of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) colleagues as well as when they are not around.  Favoritism, gossip and prejudice, even when expressed supposedly in jest behind closed doors, can still hurt and intimidate, causing our colleagues to shrink and avoid bringing their best selves to work. 

Being an effective ally takes dedication and determination. It entails constantly remaining open to learning, embracing challenges, owning mistakes and changing our behavior.  It also means taking on the uncomfortable job of addressing unconscious biases at work and creating safe spaces for meaningful conversations between BIPOC and non-BIPOC colleagues to share experiences and observations.  These dialogues can be a valuable resource for discovering new paths to understand one another and collaborate better.  

Remember, it is not always easy for BIPOC colleagues to actively speak up when they experience the pain of unconscious bias.  Therefore it is up to those in leadership positions and non-BIPOC allies to establish an environment of honesty and transparency where insensitive employees are compelled to confront their own social and cultural conditioning. When allies hear comments with inappropriate undertones, having private conversations to raise awareness and sensitivity can be a good a starting point.  It also can be very helpful to open a dialogue to create understanding about the issue.  

Tactfully express concern and ask a BIPOC co-worker if they would be willing to share their experiences with unconscious bias as a minority in the workplace.  BIPOC employees who are interested should be given avenues to open eyes, minds and hearts and have a conversation on what it means to be a meaningful ally.  Take suggestions for speakers or video content that may effectively represent their experiences and point of view. If the environment feels safe, BIPOC colleagues should be given the offer to discuss complex and uncomfortable topics with you provided there will be no judgment by either party.  

Of course, this can only be accomplished within an established culture of safety, where employees can respectfully bring up issues without fear of retaliation.  If you are a minority at work, ask colleagues if they are open to work with you to improve the climate at the office. Not everyone will be open, so if one person declines, find another to approach. For inspiration on how to approach to these discussions, you may find ideas from 
Emmanuel Acho  and his  Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man series of video discussions. 

The most important thing is to recognize that unconscious biases exist and are damaging to the workforce, a business and a brand. These conversations are undoubtedly difficult, so acknowledging and even rewarding employees who are willing to bridge the gap sends a positive message to the rest of the organization.  If this is new to you, here are some resources that can serve as a springboard for change.

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