Uncovering and Overcoming Unconscious Bias in the Workplace
On October 11th, the Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate invited students, colleagues and industry professionals to its BMC Dialogue Series: Unconscious Bias in the Workplace. The highly relevant topic of unconscious bias, made popular during the 2016 presidential election, is one that is important in today’s business culture. An unconscious bias is a preference for or against a person, thing or group held at the unconscious level. It is both pervasive and robust, however, also malleable, meaning that with the right tools we can change these unconscious thoughts.
By its definition you are likely unaware that you are exhibiting a bias. So how do we mitigate unconscious bias to avoid its potential implications? The program opened with Jerrilyn Malana, chief deputy for employment and special advisor at the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, who laid the foundation for defining unconscious bias and reviewing tools to help overcome it. Unconscious bias, used interchangeably with the term implicit bias, develops throughout our lifetime through all the context that we have had with different individuals and experiences. When we aggregate this information together, mental shortcuts and schemas consisting of both attitudes and stereotypes that we have about people begin to form.
These unconscious predispositions shape the decisions we make and how we interact with others which can have harsh implications, especially in the workplace. Malana provided the audience with a handful of tools and strategies to avoid these implications of hidden biases in today’s work environment. She suggested changing your mindset and being open to change as well as diversifying your own personal social circles. In regards to decision making, she recommended slowing down your thought processes, recognizing risk factors and reducing distractions.
The program continued with Joyce Rowland, senior vice president and chief human resources and administrative officer for Sempra Energy, who took us through her journey and efforts at Sempra to create and foster a company culture to be one of diversity and inclusion. Rowland explained that the nature of these efforts are not always fast or straight-forward or immediately successful. Companies need to commit to the long game in order to be successful. She emphasized, “You have to be in it with a certain level of commitment and to really impact it requires constant, unrelenting pressure in the right direction.” Sempra’s commitment to this culture starts internally, at the top, where they have focused on creating a diverse board of directors, senior management team and workforce. Joyce explained though that in today’s society achieving diversity is not enough. We must also develop a workplace that is inclusive.
Inclusiveness is a call to action within the workforce that means actively involving every employee’s ideas, knowledge, perspectives, approaches, and styles to maximize business success[i]. This can be difficult to achieve because it demands that people get out of their comfort zone and engage with others. Rowland believes that inclusiveness is the sweet spot however, and occurs when gender, age, ethnicity, disability, even gender expression are not seen as barriers to connecting with one another allowing individuals to find a way to get “out of their bubble.”
Sempra focuses on using both company-lead and employee-driven diversity and inclusion strategies to continue moving in the right direction. Sempra has initiated a number of programs both internal and external surrounding diversity and inclusion creating continuity and ongoing sustainability. Some of these efforts include annual diversity and inclusion summits, diversity and inclusion commitments, ambassador models and mentee programs in addition to presentations on the topic to external audiences in the community.
Malana and Rowland then joined Tim Durie, senior vice president of organizational development for Newland Real Estate Group, and Jennifer Litwak, executive director of Housing on Merit, for a panel discussion on the topic moderated by Stath Karras, executive director of the Burnham-Moores Center. The panel discussed unconscious bias further, touching on many of the findings in CREW’s (Commercial Real Estate Women) benchmark studies. Litwak also referenced CREW’s white paper called “Closing the Gap: Addressing Gender Bias and Other Barriers for Women in Commercial Real Estate,” which was published following the benchmark studies and aims to inform and impact the commercial real estate industry by diving a bit deeper into the issues that persist and stymie women’s advancement in the industry. Each panelist also offered personal experiences of unconscious bias in their organizations and ways they are personally and professionally trying to alter these thought processes.
Hidden biases have the power to derail an organization’s success if not addressed. The insight and information presented in this dialogue series left attendees with the knowledge and tools needed to avoid this from happening. Understanding unconscious bias and the implications it can present are important initial steps to help mitigate unconscious bias in the workplace.
[i] Schawbel, Dan. “How Companies can Benefit From Inclusion.” Forbes, 2014, https://www.forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2012/05/13/how-companies-can-benefit-from-inclusion/#6c67a6ef223d
Top photo: © GettyImages / Martin Barraud