How you can help address diversity and unconscious bias in the workplace

Every employee can do something to minimise the impact of unconscious biases, and new recruits are particularly well positioned to help organisations improve their diversity policies, says Trevor Sterling, Partner at UK law firm, Moore Blatch

When starting a new job, there are many things to get to grips with – a new commute, getting to know your colleagues and a different style of working.

But, alongside the exciting opportunities, I would also encourage you to look at your organisation’s diversity policy – with a fresh perspective and outlook, you are an invaluable resource for suggested upgrades and improvements. Taking the time to make suggestions also gives you a great opportunity to make your mark and get noticed early on.  

Obstacles and gaps in awareness

A 2019 study from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that most company leaders, who are primarily white heterosexual males, still underestimate the challenges diverse employees face. These are the leaders who control the budgets and get to decide which diversity programmes to pursue.

For those entering new roles, after a career move or graduate schemes which have elements of learning and training embedded, there is a wonderful opportunity to spot where a company’s gaps may be, in terms of addressing diversity.

Every employee can do something to minimise the impact of unconscious biases and discrimination, no matter their position, and this is particularly true when you enter a new organisation. Taking action to effect positive changes should also improve morale at work, help build stronger relationships between colleagues and, ultimately, help retain talented staff. 

Unconscious biases

One of the biggest restrictions to increasing diversity may be unconscious biases. Everyone has unconscious biases but failing to address these creates a cycle in which companies continue to hire those that act, think and look similar to themselves.

Sadly, the BCG study also found that more than a third of diverse employees said ‘yes’ when asked if they see obstacles to diversity and inclusion at their company. In addition, half said they do not believe that their companies have the right mechanisms in place to ensure that major decisions are free from bias.

Recognise your own biases

There are always things you can do to ensure you minimise your own unconscious biases and help encourage diversity within your workplace.

If you are a newer employee, it may be easier for you to see the issues which surround diversity and you may even experience it firsthand. You may also need to be honest with yourself about the stereotypes that affect you and your decisions. There are various tests you can take, for example, those developed by researchers at Harvard, but it’s possible to spot these for yourself in day-to-day interactions. Watch how you react to situations and people when you are tired, under pressure and stressed. When these emotions and moods are felt, you are more likely to allow your subconscious thoughts to become visible. Researchers have also suggested that simply thinking about positive situations, such as your interactions with a group towards whom you may have a bias, can limit your unconscious biases.

How we are addressing unconscious bias

From my own experience as a legal professional with a BAME background, there have certainly been times where I have missed out on opportunities in my career due to unconscious bias from those around me.

For example, I noticed subtle issues arising with colleagues at a previous firm that I believe were down to cultural differences. These instances, which did not involve arguments or questions relating to my work, escalated to the point where it was suggested that I be moved from my field of expertise on to stress cases, effectively sidelining me.

I mention this not to relay to you my career ups and downs, but to make the point that having achieved a degree of success in an identical role in the field of law has only strengthened my belief that I was on the receiving end of unconscious bias at my previous firm. It is experiences like these that led to my involvement in the Mary Seacole Trust, a UK organisation that campaigns for equality and promotes diverse leadership in both the private and public sectors.

At my current law firm, we have addressed the issue of unconscious bias directly by making training in this area a key priority for all partners and managers. This has raised our employees’ awareness of the types of bias and discrimination traps that people can fall into and has created a more inclusive working environment as a result. We have also taken more direct measures, such as ensuring that there is ethnic representation on the firm’s pay and promotion committees.

No matter what level of seniority you currently hold, it’s important for you to express your opinion if there are ways in which you believe your company can improve their diversity initiatives. It may feel like your opinion’s value will be limited if you’re new, or in a more junior role. But, in reality, there is ample opportunity for you to express your opinion and to help improve the company as a whole. This is something which the senior leadership team and other colleagues will inevitably be thankful for.

Trevor Sterling is Major Trauma Partner at UK law firm, Moore Blatch.

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