Photo: Josh Calabrese

Empathy, Action: What HR Can Do Now

Recently I published an article on about the elephant in the room. It was one of those pieces I had to do. I had to go out on a limb and just say it

We talk about diversity all the time — and on TalentCulture we’ve published many articles on improving diversity and inclusion. One offered seven tips on “managing diversity” in the workplace, and included wisdom from people working on the front lines of diversity, including diversity and inclusion consultant and author La’Wana Harris and Amy Cappellanti-Wolf, CHRO at Symantec. The post listed ways to improve more than manage, including building pipelines to more diverse talent, and letting go of seeing diversity not as a state of being but a buzzword. The step that struck me the most was examining policies to root out systemic inequality. As Harris noted, “Workplace policies, systems and processes can disproportionately impact historically marginalized populations.”

Of course, she’s right. But what strikes me now is that she didn’t put it in the past tense then, and it wouldn’t be in the past tense now. Between that post and the article on Forbes is the better part of a year, and a lot has happened to say the least. We’ve witnessed the murder of African-Americans at the hands of police and learned of one in which she was killed in her house, in her bed, and by mistake. You don’t usually see me get into these kinds of details, but the circumstances are so shocking I think they bear repeating, and repeating again. And we’ve seen — and millions have participated in — some 21 days and counting of protests spurred by outrage. 

AI and VR: Tools for Fairness

The one piece of good news is that we are being forced to reckon with that elephant. And the elephant for everyone in HR is this: we can’t improve diversity with any kind of commitment and intent if we don’t first address racism. And by addressing racism, I mean working as hard as we can to undo it in our own workplaces. It means looking hard at what we produce and offer, and asking whether it’s helping or not. IBM recently put the brakes on its facial recognition program. As CEO Arvind Krishna said, “We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.” He went on to note that AI systems need to be subject to far more scrutiny regarding bias. And that’s something that’s come up again and again, in a hiring context, on this site.

Is that where we start? We actively celebrate technology on TalentCulture: we just wrapped the HR Tech Awards for 2020, and among the many innovations there’s certainly AI. Another innovation that came up recently is VR, and I had a fascinating discussion on a recent #WorkTrends with clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg about how VR can help radically improve empathy among diverse work teams. The podcast focused not just on diversity but on work culture as a whole — but it’s the potential to decrease unconscious bias, microaggressions and intolerance that stays with me. If we can put on a headset and literally experience what that feels like to someone else, maybe it should be part of everyone’s training — make it a required component of onboarding or skill development.  

Undoing the Status Quo

Do I expect my clarion call on Forbes to have an affect? Perhaps it will. Sometimes a post goes viral for reasons completely beyond our control, as when I talked about emotional intelligence and leadership just when EQ was getting on our radar, or more recently, when I predicted the key trends we’d see in 2020. (I’m lucky to have great readers, and grateful.) In the trends article, I mentioned a shift to tending rather than managing our workforce, advocated for leaning harder on AI for recruiting so long as it was programmed without bias, and pointed out that more of us would be working remotely. But that was written well before the pandemic threw up all into a tailspin, or survival mode, or just home, before the nation exploded, and before it became clear that we tend to stay entrenched in our own status quo. 

But we can’t accept the status quo anymore, and this is the opportunity to snap out of it. I wasn’t surprised when 63% of respondents to our June 3 newsletter survey said they’d experienced racism in the workplace either directed at themselves (39.7%) or a coworker (23.8%). But I was shocked to find out that less than 5% had reported it. HR, I’m looking at you.

HR Has a Role to Play

So let’s have real conversations about the bias that may be stuck within our work cultures (conscious or unconscious). Let’s push back against complacency or just inertia when it comes to examining and improving workplace policies. Let’s keep asking the hard questions — we just ran a follow-up survey question this week, asking who is now having discussions about racism among their coworkers. I’m very interested in those results. I’d like to challenge the top innovators to find the best means to systematically detach AI from potential bias. I’d like to know who’s reviewing accounts of unfair treatment in their workplace, and having a new reckoning to set things right. 

In the end, every business will be better and more sustainable in the future if it works to be more equitable, diverse, and fair in the present. Knowledge is power, as we well know. And HR is a field that wants to evolve — and indeed, it can’t stop evolving. We’re made for this. So let’s get to it.

The Truth About Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Inequality takes many forms and manifests in numerous manners. However, what does unconscious bias do to our workplaces? As women, we deal with more in the workplace than our male counterparts, including unconscious bias. Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their conscious awareness. Unconscious bias happens outside of our control. It occurs automatically and is triggered by our brain making a quick judgment. Whether we realize it or not, an unconscious bias thrives in our society. Women are still discriminated against professionally, whether it is directly through compensation or indirectly through the way we are treated or spoken to. This bias worsens as we climb the ladder. Each of us maintains unconscious beliefs about various social & identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize a social world by categorizing. Unconscious bias can be more prevalent than we realize and it can also be more difficult to free workplaces of. Unconscious bias is more predominant than conscious prejudice.

Unconscious Bias in Hiring and Promotions

If left unchecked, unconscious bias can thrive in hiring, promotions, and in feedback. It is important to hire a diverse workforce to be competitive. However, an unconscious bias works against this and keeps women from being equal, successful, and economically stable. HR professionals must combat unconscious bias in hiring and it is important for employers to maintain policies that are supportive of equality. Examples of such include telecommuting options, flexible hours, and family leave. Each of these policies make for a happier, more productive workforce. It is also beneficial to work with groups who can help can get diversity into the workforce. In addition, educating your employees about implicit biases will help them to scrutinize their own behaviors and be more mindful. It is also important to define requirements for a position carefully because women will not apply unless they meet 100 percent of them. Organizations should define which requirements are mandatory and which ones are not. When advertising for a position, choose words carefully because some will work against bringing candidates in. Gender neutral environments also are important in attracting candidates. When considering an employee for a promotion, it is important not to consider external factors or those that are not related to how an employee performs their job functions. Whether this is done purposely or by an implicit assumption, it is a discriminatory behavior. Implicit bias based on the idea that an employee can perform their job properly. For example, an employer should not assume that a female employee would not be interested in a promotion solely because she is pregnant. This implicit assumption is based on the notion that women are not capable of working and having a family or that women should be limited to only one. It is ideas like these keep women back professionally and economically. They also contribute to gender inequality whether we realize it or not.

Unconscious Bias in Feedback

There is also research that states men and women are assessed differently in the workplace. Male and female managers may critique women more harshly for being aggressive. Their accomplishments are more likely to be viewed as a team effort rather than their individual one. These differences are products of an unconscious bias, which influence our workplaces. If managers expect women to be team-oriented and men to be independent, women may be pushed into supporting roles rather than the core positions that lead to executive jobs. When these stereotypes are internalized over time they can sap up some of the women’s confidence that they or their female co-workers can handle more demanding positions. Whether we realize it or not, stereotypes shape our perceptions of capability. Women are held to a higher standard within evaluations and we hold ourselves to a higher standard as well. Hidden biases such as these can cumulatively damage a woman’s career over time. This results in a decreased access to leadership positions, stretch assignments, advancement, and pay.

Combatting Gender Bias

It is important to raise awareness to combat issues such as these. They pervade within our cultural and social norms. Employers also must ensure that they employ specific criteria in hiring, promotions, and giving feedback to their employees. Employers can also take a proactive approach by learning from each other in how they conduct their performance reviews, advertise for new positions, or decide on a process for promotions. It is important to be thorough, fair, and transparent within each process. By maintaining this approach throughout the employment process, women have a better chance at achieving professional and economic success. As a society, we must continue to work together towards the common goal of achieving parity by raising awareness and challenging our norms.

How Does It Affect Our Workplaces?

Unconscious causes us to make decisions in favor of group versus another. If women face unconscious bias it is easy to see how aspects in the workplace can favor men. Studies have shown that it affects hiring decisions, salaries, and ultimately, career advantages. Women face enough challenges in the workforce and unconscious bias, ultimately, is just another source of stress and pressure.

How is unconscious bias different from blatant discrimination? Research in social psychology shows that people are able to control their unconscious biases. However, HR professionals also can help organizations uncover and combat unconscious bias and its effects in the workplace by:

  • Providing awareness training
  • Creating structures
  • Labeling the types of bias that are likely to occur.

Unconscious bias, if left unchecked, can turn to discrimination. We all have unconscious biases and by providing awareness training, employees are given the opportunity to learn more about it. It also teaches them how recognize them and how to combat them in daily decision-making. Awareness training can also create an organizational conversation about what biases exist within the company and what steps the company can take towards minimizing them. Labeling them is also important because it brings them to the forefront and the conscious level, leaders and employees will have an increased level of awareness and how it affects decision-making processes, hiring, promotions, compensation, and organizational culture. Creating structures allows for more deliberative actions and provide opportunities to point out ways for peers to point out ways bias may be seeping in.

So, what happens when organizations are not successful in preventing unconscious bias? What structures are in place to prevent discrimination in the workplace? 

Legal Protections

The pay gap affects not just women but our families and the economy as well. This adds up to lost wages, a reduction in pensions, and decreased Social Security benefits. Under the Equal Pay Act, men and women must be paid equal wages if they perform equal work. What some may or may not realize is that Equal Pay is applicable to more than just a paycheck. The Equal Pay Act also requires employers to provide their employees whose job functions require equal skill, effort, and responsibility and are performed under the comparable working conditions an equal salary, bonuses, overtime pay, stock options, profit sharing and similar packages, life insurance, holiday and vacation pay, any specific allowances or reimbursement for travel accommodations and expenses. Unequal compensation is not legal unless the employer can demonstrate that the pay differential is based upon a fair seniority, incentive system, or merit. It must be a factor other than gender.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act your employer may not discriminate against you based on your race, gender, religion, or national origin within any conditions or terms of your employment, including benefits, compensation, and hours. Title VII also prohibits pay discrimination that results from unfairly denying women promotions or other forms of discrimination that can impact pay. Both the Equal Pay Act and Title VII are enforced by the EEOC.

The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act clarifies that each paycheck providing discriminatory compensation is a basis to file a claim under Title VII irrespective of when the discrimination began. This law allows 180 days after the most recent paycheck that reflects unequal wages to file a charge with the EEOC.

Discriminatory behavior, whether it is subtle or not, is how inequality manifests. Unconscious bias is one way in which discriminatory behavior manifests and holds women back professionally and economically.

It is up to our HR professionals and workplaces to continue to combat unconscious bias by providing training, enforcing policies, and creating structures and classifications that can allow level play fields and keep unconscious bias from pervading our workplaces and organizations.

A version of this post was first published on