Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Though the problem did not begin in the past three years, companies today are now investing thousands of dollars on implicit/unconscious bias training and less time and effort on solutions to create long-term sustainable results that transform culture through demonstrable shifts in mindset, behaviors, and systemic change.  Although there is no “silver bullet”  to overcoming unconscious biases in the workplace, a structured mentoring program can be a powerful strategy.

Unconscious Bias and Mentoring

I often state that mentoring is an often-overlooked strategy to combating the various challenges faced by organizations to attract, develop and retain top talent while ensuring inclusive practices. There is a growing number of organizations introducing structured mentoring initiatives, often matching junior members of staff with senior leaders through formal programs. The data supports that traditional hierarchical methodology around mentoring is a top reason mentoring programs fail. Workplaces that do not seek ways to drive cultural intelligence and build diverse work teams can perpetuate environments where unconscious bias impacts systems and culture.

Mentees look to mentors to support them as they develop skills, knowledge and tools that will help them to achieve their personal and professional goals. Mentors have the responsibility to draw upon their experience and knowledge to advise, challenge, support or coach their mentee through specific challenges they’re facing in their current role, or to help them to develop the skills they need to progress. Mentors have to be intentional and self-aware as to not allow their unconscious bias to influence the advice that they share. 

A mentor’s advice is built on assumptions and beliefs that have worked for them, but that may not hold true for the mentee. I experienced this years ago when working with an executive leader who was assigned as my mentor. I was identified as a high potential team member and was being coached toward a promotion career track. This individual gave me advice on how to navigate single parenting and my career trajectory with comments that were fueled with a lot of misguided assumptions about my lived experiences. It created a barrier between us. In full transparency, I did not know how to navigate those conversations, so I ultimately left the organization prior to the planned promotion. The easiest way to ensure a situation like this does not create a barrier in a mentoring relationship is to ask more questions.

Combating Bias

There are many biases that show up personally and professionally in the workplace. Here are some key questions you might ask yourself or inquire whether these characteristics are reflected in your workplace?

·  As a mentor, do you tend to prefer to mentor younger versions of yourself?

·  In mentoring relationships, do you consistently gravitate to individuals that look like you?

·  When met with perspectives that offend or call into question someone’s cultural intelligence, how do you handle it?

Dr.  Nika White, author of the best-selling book, Inclusion Uncomplicated, joined the Engage Mentoring Developing Leaders forum as a featured speaker recently, shared some tactical phrases to build our skills in managing bias in the workplace. They are listed below:

·  Tell me more.

·  Help me understand your perspective.

·  What causes you to feel that way?

·  We don’t do that here; that’s not part of our culture.

·  That can be taken wrong-can you explain what you meant?

·  That’s not okay with me and I respect you enough to let you know.

·  I hope you’ll reconsider your assumption on this issue.

· Have you considered the negative impact your words/behavior may have on others?

·  Can I ask that you not say that around me again please?

· I’m telling you this because I believe when it comes to issues of bias, we all can learn.

Mentoring is a reciprocal relationship and can be very valuable to both mentee and mentor when empathy and self-awareness of the implication of unconscious bias is engaged.

Yalonda Brown is a seasoned professional whose expertise spans over 20 years in both the private and public sectors. Her drive and self-determination has resulted in a myriad of demonstrable accomplishments as an intuitive leader, thought partner, and high functioning performer. Yalonda serves as the President of Diversity Initiatives for Engage Mentoring where she leads the national expansion of diversity-focused mentoring and leadership programs for companies, universities, and nonprofits.

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