Talent Management

Want to retain your diverse workforce? Focus on removing bias

unconscious bias employees

Many CEOs and business owners know the research. Diverse teams are more innovative, they produce more and they generate more revenue. 

But to reap those rewards, companies have to do more than just hire a more diverse workforce, says Valerie Alexander, a Vistage speaker and nationally recognized author on the topics of workplace happiness, the advancement of women and unconscious bias. 

Any company’s inclusion efforts must ensure that Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQIA+ and female employees are treated respectfully and have opportunities to perform and advance, says Alexander. However, many within those groups feel marginalized and mistreated by their employers and colleagues. Sometimes that treatment is blatant, but often, it comes from not having their perspectives valued. 

“The value of diversity has nothing to do with different gender or skin color or nationality,” Alexander says. “It has to do with different thought processes, different life experiences, and different perspectives.”

Research shows that “non-white workers not only encounter more negative incidents than their white counterparts, but they also miss out on the experiences that leave them feeling good about themselves and their employers,” giving them fewer reasons to stay and more reasons to leave. 

Those feelings of unfairness and unappreciation translate into voluntary turnover and poor retention rates. A 2017 study focusing on the tech industry shows that 37% of those surveyed voluntarily left their jobs because of “unfairness or mistreatment at work,” resulting in $16 billion in estimated costs to employers. Of those citing unfairness: 

  • 1 in 10 women reported receiving unwanted sexual attention from a colleague, 
  • 20% of LGBT employees said they were bullied while 24% said they were humiliated publicly at work, 
  • and roughly 25% of employees who were people of color experienced stereotyping. 

With voluntary turnover costing U.S. businesses $1 trillion annually, Alexander says business owners and CEOs must look beyond building productive, purposeful cultures and create environments where all workers feel valued, secure and encouraged to succeed. 

“Getting people through the door is the first step in developing a diverse workforce,” says Alexander. “Next, you have to retain that diverse workforce, meaning you have to put people in an environment where they feel safe coming to work everyday. And then the last third is to reward that diverse workforce.”


Unconscious bias plays a role

Often, biases that employers and managers are unaware of can creep into the day-to-day interactions, Alexander says. This “unconscious bias” (also known as implicit bias) occurs as an involuntary stress response to uncomfortable or unexpected situations, even when we’re consciously accepting of them, Alexander says. 

“We’ve all had the experience where you’re speaking with a man and he mentions being married, and you say, ‘I’d love to meet your wife.’ And he says, ‘my husband,’” says Alexander. “And it doesn’t matter how excited you are that two consenting adults have the right to get married, you still go, ‘Oh.’”

That “Oh” moment is your amygdala telling your body to release the stress hormone cortisol into your bloodstream, making you feel uncomfortable, Alexander says. Though milder than adrenaline, cortisol still triggers a “fight-or-flight” response. 

How does this translate into workplace biases? Bringing in employees with different backgrounds or perspectives can place some managers in that unfamiliar, uncomfortable space, Alexander says, leading them to subconsciously seek out and work with those who don’t generate that reaction. 


Workplace biases manifest in stereotyping, lack of opportunities, dismissiveness and defensive behavior

This unconscious bias, while unintended, can have serious, real-world consequences for others, Alexander says, and it can manifest in several different ways: 

The exception to the stereotype

In her workshops, Alexander will ask members if they have a set of beliefs about an entire group of people based on skin color or heritage, even if that belief is positive and, intelligently, “you know that cannot be accurate,” she says. 

“And if you can get yourself to see one person as distinct from what you believe?” adds Alexander. “That’s worse.” 

Not only are you ascribing stereotypes and generalizations to an entire group, Alexander says, but by seeing that one person as an exception, you elicit further biases by taking away their margin for error

“When we think of someone as the exception to our own beliefs, we give them no free passes and they have no freedom to fail,” she says. “And in your workplace, if somebody doesn’t have the freedom to fail, that means they don’t have the freedom to succeed either. There can be no innovation without failure. There can be no progress, no creativity.”

Those employees, particularly among Black, Indigenous and People of Color, feel constant pressure to prove themselves or risk adversely affecting their employer’s belief in that group. Dubbed “Stereotype Syndrome” or “Stereotype Threat,” this feeling of heightened expectation based on one’s ethnicity leads to employees feeling isolated and annihilated, which can lead to turnover, Alexander says. 

Indeed, a 2020 report found that nearly one in three Black employees (32%), one in four Asian employees (23%) and one in seven Latinx employees (15%)  say they feel out of place at work because of their ethnicity.

“Think of the burden that puts on someone if every time you walk into that office, factory or medical floor, you have to represent your entire race, your entire gender, your entire nationality, or your entire religion,” Alexander says. “And they know that if they fail, you will hold it against everyone who looks like them.”

Menial work vs the dream assignment

Another way biases appear can be in how assignments are given out to employees. Alexander recalled a story of a junior sales rep, being invited to a meeting by his supervisor that included several mid- and senior-level team members and impressing the group.

When the sales rep later told Alexander the story, she immediately asked if the rep was the best salesperson on his team. When he replied he wasn’t, Alexander began to ask about the other salespeople and their backgrounds. 

“He figured out where I was going, and he started to get defensive immediately,” Alexander says. “People get defensive when it might be suggested to them why they were the one invited to the group.”

Conversely,  Alexander recalled her time as a Silicon Valley IPO lawyer being constantly assigned to update databases. It took her own boss stepping in to persuade the firm’s partners to reassign the project, which was not client billable, had no client interaction and had only been assigned to women.

This idea of not providing your diverse workforce with opportunities to impress while bogging them down with menial tasks can have an adverse effect on companies, Alexander says, as research from a 2019 report shows 22% percent of employees who left their jobs the previous year cited a lack of career development as their reason. The top two issues? The type of work they were doing, and few opportunities for growth and development. 

“We don’t get the same level of support that our white male colleagues get, and they think we’re getting it,” Alexander says. “So they don’t understand why we’re exhausted or why we’re getting burned out so much more quickly.”

The “Mt. Everest” paradigm

Another issue stems immediately from bringing up this kind of preferential treatment, which implies that those receiving the opportunity had not earned it through hard work, Alexander says. “Nobody wants to be told they didn’t earn what they’ve got.” 

Alexander examines this through “The Mt. Everest exercise,” an activity she employs frequently at Vistage meetings. In this analogy, Alexander mentions that there are several starting points where climbers can begin their ascent up the mountain: a small village where climbers gather their supplies or one of four “base camps. ”

Even though everyone makes that final, treacherous climb to the summit, many people start at various points, Alexander says. 

Likewise, It’s difficult for those with an advantage to differentiate themselves from those who’ve faced greater obstacles. Normally when she employs this exercise, Alexander tells participants, “if you are white male and born in America, Camp three is the lowest point you can start.” 

This marginalization of effort makes it difficult for employers and managers to not only recognize their own advantages, but also acknowledge others might have worked longer and dealt with additional challenges to reach the same level of success, Alexander says. She recalled another conversation with a friend, a white woman, who had recently been hired as a fundraiser for a large nonprofit in Los Angeles.  

Part of her friend’s training included attending a gathering within the organization, and during the cocktail hour, the new fundraiser made several connections and got some great leads on potential donors. 

Later, the fundraiser said that her boss, a woman of color who had been with the nonprofit for eight years, was bitter and resentful of her immediate success, Alexander says. 

“I had to explain to her, ‘Yeah, because she’s been there eight years. You have no idea what it’s been like for her,’” Alexander says. “She couldn’t fathom how much easier it was for her to connect to the people in that room, how people would walk over to her, and how they welcomed her when she walked over to them. There’s no awkwardness for anyone involved. It shouldn’t be that way, but it’s been that way for her [boss].”  

Dismissing underrepresented employees’ opinions and value

Alexander says employers will often discount the value or experience of underrepresented and female employees by baking in high requirements as a prerequisite for advancement, often matching the level of the job they’re coveting. 

“It’s like saying to be a VP of sales, you had to be a VP of sales previously,” she says. 

This “checkboxing,” as Alexander puts it, disportionately affects women and BIPOC employees as it disqualifies candidates who may not have similarly impressive credentials but have proven to be effective workers. Research shows that Black employees account for only 3.2% of the senior leadership roles at large U.S. companies and 0.8% of all Fortune 500 CEO positions

Many times, Alexander says, the need for previous high-level managerial experience is unnecessary. She recalled a conversation with a Vistage member shortly after completing her Mt. Everest exercise. The member mentioned that he was looking to add two more members to his board and wanted to add diversity. His challenge, Alexander says, came from trying to find qualified candidates. 

As they talked, the member came to a realization: One of his qualifications was that the candidate must be the CEO of a company. “Is that mandatory for the skills you need on your board,” Alexander asked the member. “No, not at all,” she recalled the member saying. 

“You’re eliminating a lot of really qualified people just by saying these are the checkboxes we need,” Alexander says. “Look at your requirements and look at who it attracts, who it rejects.”

Likewise, discounting the opinions of your diverse workforce can also cause them to feel undervalued and unappreciated, Alexander says. Women, BIPOC and women of color in particular are often interrupted and talked over more often than white males, she says, “and we’re more likely to back down when someone starts talking over us.”

A 2019 report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org bares this out, finding that 50% of all women employees surveyed say they’re interrupted or spoken over at work. 

And if they’re not being spoken over, female and underrepresented employees constantly have their expertise challenged, Alexander says. Because they are not white males, their authority as a subject matter expert is prone to more scrutiny over their education, experience and knowledge base. 

Again, the McKinsey and LeanIn report found that 30% of all women needed to prove their competency while 38% have had their judgment in their area of expertise questioned. For Black women, 40% said they had to prove their competency while 41%  had their judgment questioned, compared to 14% and 29% of all men, respectively. 

This can also lead to another issue among BIPOC and women employees: Masking or covering up parts of one’s identity to better fit with colleagues. Research from Deloitte and the NYU School of Law shows that 49% of respondents cover some part of their identity — appearance, association, affiliation or advocacy — to fit a more mainstream persona and better relate to colleagues.

“If you have five white men from the same Ivy League school on your team, and you hire a black woman from Howard — but the only way she’s going to advance in your company is if she figures out how to start behaving like them — then you’ve lost all the value you brought by hiring her,” Alexander says.


How to combat workplace biases

Despite the issues that had contributed to the unfairness and mistreatment that many face in their workplaces, Alexander outlined several strategies managers and employers can take to alleviate these pain points. 

1. Do away with preconceived notions of groups — ethnic, religious or otherwise —  and especially the “good” stereotypes, Alexander says. “You need to work on eliminating your own biases because you are setting that person up to fail,” she says. 

Instead, work with your executive team and human resources to develop a set of objective metrics to rate performance, Alexander says. That way, you’ve leveled expectations across the company and removed the stigma that performance either validates or invalidates an entire group of people. 

“Make sure they are given the same freedom to fail as everybody else, where they’re judged objectively,” Alexander says.  

To create those metrics, Alexander recommends “examining the outcomes your company is trying to achieve and then figure out what behavior gets you to those outcomes.”  By creating a set of metrics that reward that behavior, “you’ll suddenly start to see a lot more value of diversity, when you actually tie evaluations to outcomes.” 

2. Think about who you invite to the meeting. Examine why you select certain team members to join you as opposed to others, Alexander says, especially if there are workers with better performance. 

“If you say, ‘Oh, I don’t know why I chose that person,’ you have to examine why you chose that person as opposed to these other people. Is it because that’s the person who looks like the people we’ve always had in that role?” 

Often, meetings involving senior-level or executive team members can lay the groundwork for advancement, Alexander says, opportunities many underrepresented groups say they don’t experience. Recalling her sales rep relative, Alexander says he impressed his supervisors so much he later received a requested transfer. 

“Being in that room at that time has had ripple effects for his career,” Alexander says. “We have inconsistent metrics as to who gets invited to the meeting and why, and we have to examine that behavior. The [supervisor needs] to be held to the standard of who gets invited to attend.” 

3. Amplify the voices that aren’t being heard. Bring those who are being ignored, interrupted or spoken over into the conversation, Alexander says, not by repeating what they say, but by directing attention back to them. This way, they’re not only able to contribute, but have that contribution recognized. 

“Stop and say, ‘Carol mentioned a different testing method that I’d like us to discuss further,’ or ‘I don’t think Jamal was done with his point and I’d like him to finish,’” Alexander says. “Direct the attention back to that person.” 

And if you’re the one interrupting or talking over people, catch yourself, Alexander says, or install a “no interruptions” rule in meetings so that team members don’t cut off one another. 

Finally, understand that men and women think differently, Alexander says, and be cognizant of that as you work together. “Men make decisions quickly and proceed with them confidently with less concern about whether they’re right or wrong,” she says. “ Women want to get all of the facts and everybody’s input. They want to make decisions by consensus. But we literally define leadership as who is the decider. We need to realize there’s room for consensus, and women are natural consensus builders.”

4. Make all performance reviews written. Again, this seems obvious given the earlier point about establishing objective metrics, Alexander says, but what’s equally important is looking back and reviewing what kind of behaviors are being rewarded. 

“Examine all your performance reviews and see if some people are given more freedom to fail than others or given second chances,” Alexander says. 

Why is this important? “There are different standards of reality when people are being reviewed,” Alexander says. “Somebody is being rewarded for contributing a lot and somebody else is being told that they talk too much,” says Alexander, who added that women are more likely to be scrutinized in a performance review.

“Women are less concerned with hierarchy and status than they are with outcome,” she says. “A man will say, ‘Well, you’re the boss’ and let it go. Women don’t let things go because we want to make sure the company is getting to the right outcome.” 

In building those objective performance metrics, make sure you’re not penalizing one group and rewarding another for the same behavior, Alexander says. And be prepared to slog it out. 

“This is not a one- or two-day or even a one- or two-week project,” she says. “This requires input from HR and leadership from every department.” 

By examining your company’s goals and building an environment that encourages and rewards that behavior, business owners and CEOs can halt the costly, revolving door of voluntary turnover and leverage the productivity and performance a fulfilled, diverse workforce can bring.


Category: Talent Management

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About the Author: Glenn Jeffers

Glenn Jeffers is a Vistage staff writer and an award-winning reporter and editor. Previously, he served as editor of Kellogg, the alumni magazine of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He h

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