Column: How to Make Sure We Address Bias in the Workplace, Even as the Workplace Dramatically Shifts

Column: How to Make Sure We Address Bias in the Workplace, Even as the Workplace Dramatically Shifts

We will soon be turning the page on the pandemic of 2020 that has dominated headlines and consumed the conversation in boardrooms across America. Along with the rapid adaptation of digital workforces, we have also seen another growing revolution that is gaining momentum in its quest for change. The year brought with it a duality that kept our attention on the pandemic while at the same time we watched in disbelief as so many occurrences of racial injustice dominated the headlines. COVID-19 may eventually fade from public view, but we cannot allow the issue of pervasive racism to slip below the surface, too. As we move into the next year it is important for us to continue building awareness on the fundamental conversations needed for the country to heal around racial boundaries. Corporate leaders have a vital role to play in that process as we adapt to the technology-driven distributed workforce of tomorrow.

Now is the time to elevate discussions about racism in the workplace. Public opinion is shifting rapidly on the topic, and there is an expectation for brands and leaders to make public statements on where they stand. Professional sports, the fashion industry, big tech and even food delivery apps have generated viral stories because of their action or hesitance to take a position on racism during the pandemic. C-suite professionals can no longer take a neutral approach on the topic of racism because the conversation is now growing louder within their own workplaces. The good news is that many leaders and brands are beginning to make commitments to better understand the complexity of the issues we face.

Creating the workforce of tomorrow also means building an equitable environment for all people. That dynamic is creating a growing consensus that the days of racism, sexism, ageism and all forms of discrimination must end. The new distributed structure of the digital work environment has created opportunities for change, but at the same time challenges to progress that must be addressed. This dynamic is especially relevant for tech firms like VMware, Facebook and Google. Companies have generally faced geographic staffing limitations that excluded potential new hires from diverse cultural backgrounds because of the relocation requirements. Tech firms must consider diversity in hiring more than ever as more barriers are removed by the evolving remote workforce opportunities.

Many companies hoped to implement diversity training and strategies to create more inclusive workplaces in the months ahead. When those plans were created, they assumed employees would be predominantly based in the same physical locations. Newly formed distributed employee environments have created barriers to communication and more subtle, but equally harmful, forms of racism and discrimination have increased.

Instances of racism on digital platforms are on the rise and are not always limited to social media. Even Airbnb and Uber have found it necessary to implement strict measures to weed out pervasive forms of racism on their platforms. A 2015 study by Harvard Professor Michael Luca and colleagues Benjamin Edelman and Dan Svirsky — now economists Microsoft and Uber, respectively — used booking requests by 20 mock Airbnb profiles without photos to gauge discrimination among 6,400 Airbnb hosts in five American cities. Requests made from profiles with African American-sounding names were about 16% less likely to be accepted. Members of the new application Clubhouse have even posted chats rooms where Black women have been criticized and harmed, just for being Black women. Additionally, messaging platforms like Telegram have been widely criticized as hundreds of white supremacist groups have sprung up on their apps. Most digital workforces are now communicating through a myriad of messaging, email and social applications where bias, microaggressions, and even overt racism take place, while the perpetrators launch culture-destroying ideology from behind a keyboard. Marginalized communities have previously found their "safe place" at home and in their digital lives. As the new digital work culture blurs those lines it is having a detrimental impact.

Corporate leaders must consider this challenge as an opportunity to create an all-encompassing approach to their diversity, equity and inclusion policies. Many forward-looking companies have been quick to act on pandemic-era adjustments, but as the remote workforce becomes permanent it is important to evaluate the new environment.

  • Start by establishing an internal committee dedicated to your diversity, equity and inclusion efforts to understand the unique impact of your new distributed workforce. This group should be rewarded for their efforts and not seen as an additional task force.
  • Consider all current communication platforms and evaluate necessary technology and policy changes. Create membership agreements that emphasize inclusive and non-discriminatory practices and fire people who violate those terms with consequence.
  • Create safe spaces for open dialogue, where marginalized populations can feel safe to speak up about their experience without being tone policed. Real change will only happen when all people truly know that their voice is heard and used when decision making is happening within your company at the highest level.
  • Recruit more BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) in executive and leadership positions. Develop competencies that respect their expertise and allow them to contribute.
  • Stop expecting one practice to solve your problems. Companies like Netflix, Comcast, Parametrix and Zillow have long-term plans that dedicate resources to diversity, equity and inclusion for up to 5 years. They are realistic, diligent and patient when creating goals and metrics. You need a plan and well-intentioned and competent people to develop and execute it!

Finally, we need to recognize that progress is being made. America is on a journey to building more equitable workplaces. Catalyst events have occurred that created more urgency to make change. Some brands and leaders have been quick to implement new strategies while others are still considering their best path forward. We did not get here overnight, and we will not have instant transformation, but doing nothing is no longer an option. Considering the workforce of tomorrow as an ever-evolving environment with opportunities for consistent improvement is important. Yes, the road forward for many companies will be challenging as they implement changes. However, the road behind us is filled with bias, discrimination, and injustice for marginalized groups. Leaders that see this reality and understand that their workplace will only truly thrive when it is equitable will see results as the most successful workplaces of tomorrow.

Dr. Cheryl Ingram, PhD is a diversity, equity and inclusion strategist and founder and CEO of Inclusology and Diverse City LLC.

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