Designing an Unconscious Bias Program to Ease Uncertainty

Behavioral scientists have long studied the effect of uncertainty on emotions, actions, and decision-making. Uncertainty is a challenge for all of us! It may make us feel angry or anxious. It may cause us to avoid conversations, or to pull back or pause an initiative when, in fact, we’d be better served by forging ahead. And, it may cause us to defer decision-making until a time when we have more certainty: information about people, budgets, timelines. Uncertainty is affecting the work companies are doing on unconscious bias, and in the short term, that’s understandable. For those with the mental fortitude to employ their growth mindset, times of uncertainty and change are a wonderful time to brainstorm. Whether you’re hoping to start an unconscious bias program from scratch or looking to uplevel your current work on unconscious bias, here are some ideas to help design a program that can deliver for your company, even during uncertain times.

The Purpose of Your Unconscious Bias Program

We start with the premise that the purpose of a corporate unconscious bias program is to enable the company’s success by creating a more resilient, adaptable, innovative, and productive workforce. 

As part of a talent initiative (particularly where a company has a diverse employee base or is looking to become more diverse) unconscious bias programs raise awareness of each individual’s strengths, increase listening skills and empathy, and nudge people towards better behaviors. In turn, this creates improved communication, more effective collaboration, unfettered brainstorming and more realistic risk assessments. Though to some it may feel “slow,” and sometimes uncomfortable, when diverse teams engage in deeper discourse, research proves it results in better outcomes. It’s far more efficient to engage in a proactive debate that results in a superior product than to release an inferior product and focus resources on bandaged fixes while continuing to iterate little by little over time.

If the purpose of your program is to make your company more successful, and the impact drives efficiency and productivity, does it make sense to say an unconscious bias program should be put on hold until better times?

Make it work for work

Customizing your unconscious bias program for your workforce is key. Emtrain works with hundreds of organizations, and one thing is clear: every organization is unique. How you frame it, what you name it,  and how it gets delivered can make all the difference in your ability to get executive sponsorship and broad buy-in from your colleagues.

Take a step back and open up your lens. How might you approach your unconscious bias program in a new way that works best for your company culture?

  • Who leads it? Maybe it’s a top-down directive from HR, with partners from different parts of your organization. Maybe it’s a middle-out effort from the leaders of your Employee Resource Groups, or a bottom-up effort by a few colleagues who come together after a culture hackathon or talent innovation forum. Perhaps it’s an effort that emanates from the Office of the CEO, and is led by a team of representatives from various areas. (As practitioners, sometimes we need to step out of the way. It’s not really about us and our ability to “lead” a program. It’s about how we enable many others to feel co-ownership of the program and make it a part of their daily work lives.)
  • How do you design it? Do your people tend to be data-driven? Enable a research-based approach by collecting stats and survey responses. Does your organization typically use a design thinking model? In-source the key elements by collecting observations and insights, brainstorming, prototyping, testing, and iterating. Do your colleagues pride themselves in creativity? Facilitate a vision board (or memes or videos …) of what an ideal workplace looks and feels like.
  • How do you roll it out? Some companies like one big push: build a campaign, make sure everyone is aware of each element of the program, and make an impact all at once. On a smaller scale, you may seek to get some buzz going about the topic at hand, engage everyone briefly, and then share back the results. Other companies don’t have time or space for a big push. For them, a drip campaign of microlessons, stories, and experiences to open the lens of awareness over time may be a better fit. You’ll likely have multiple elements to your program (not just training), so consider a framework for how you’d roll out each component, and what cadence makes the most sense for your organization.

Make it global and local (Make it Glocal)

Your company has (or should have) a standard of behaviors that you expect all employees to reflect. Because cultures and laws differ around the world, and your colleagues interact with their global counterparts everyday, you need to set the tone for how you expect people to interact with each other, and what characteristics your organization will respect, regardless of where someone is based. Training your entire global population on unconscious bias, and how it may impact a person’s ability to adhere to your company’s behavioral expectations and diversity goals, sets an important foundation.

But program elements that are designed only from the top-down could feel less relevant to some offices, groups, and teams. To be effective, you also need to address bias and diversity at a local level. A top-down headquartered-in-the-US-perspective might talk about a Caucasian majority, and that’s most likely irrelevant to your offices across Asia. Each location will have different dynamics based on culture, social norms and the personalities in local leadership, and a local approach will help those conversations be on point to what local colleagues most often experience.

The same is true for different teams. One way to think it through is to ask: In this group of people, who is the minority? In HR or marketing, women may dominate the team roster. An engineering team may have younger employees predominantly. Who stands out as an “only”? How do you acknowledge their “otherness” and make sure it’s being taken into consideration when assumptions are being made by a majority? Lastly, how, over time, can you diversify the group to ensure you’re including other valuable perspectives?

Have a multi-year plan

No matter how you build your managing unconscious bias program, it should be a multi-year effort. Think of it as a journey. It starts with unconscious bias awareness. Then there are a variety of steps to build empathy. From there, you’ll have many opportunities to create small behavioral changes through new habits, a new language, or new norms. Once you’re done with a full cycle, it begins again but aided with data and insight to drill down on specific concerns. Practitioners understand we are #alwayslearning—because every activity and effort leads to new and deeper understanding.  Once you’ve created a new workplace norm, you need to nurture it, reinforce it, and make sure your workforce embraces and embodies it.

Your multi-year plan should also account for the ebb and flow of business tides to help ensure your program is sustainable. Sometimes your efforts are precisely what the company needs at exactly the right time, and sometimes you’re just out of step. A managing unconscious bias program should be able to flex with the demands on the company, and part of your skill as a practitioner is to know when you can push on the gas and when you have to slow down.

  • If your organization is being fueled by strong markets and new talent coming on board, your goal might be to make sure that all new employees are trained at a foundational level. You might kick off a new initiative that is driven by a collaboration of employees representing different teams. 
  • If your organization has hit a downturn and is reducing headcount, pause your live facilitated sessions that are offered to a wide swath of people. Instead, focus on your managers’ ability to manage their unconscious bias when they are preparing the list of employees who will be laid off.

These two examples are on opposite ends of a spectrum, but allowing your program to be flexible and aligning your program with the needs of the business at a point in time will help it be more aligned with business needs. 

Because it’s ultimately about people, your unconscious bias program also has the capacity to rally the troops, to help colleagues connect across different dimensions, to strengthen resolve, and to build momentum in the hard times. When your business hits a time of uncertainty, people naturally want to talk. It’s prime time for facilitating connections.

  • If people have become ridiculously busy, because of business demands or because they are doing extra work because of a reduced headcount, help them pause to connect with one another. Help people talk through collective experience. Acknowledging challenges, and realizing that everyone is in it together, can be reinforcing and reinvigorating.
  • If a business has slowed and people are under-worked, it’s a great time to bring people together to brainstorm. Maybe you facilitate multi-team sessions on what improvements could be made to internal processes or services and experiment with some alternate ideas. Teams may choose to implement one that makes your business more efficient. Or, you may help a diverse group of people from different departments brainstorm about the new needs your customers may have when things rebound, or new product or service ideas that you haven’t ever had time to discuss or scope out. Use the downtime to connect diverse groups of colleagues and shift their focus to preparing the business to be even more successful when things get back to normal.

Moving ahead

Uncertain times throw everyone for a loop. See if you can step away from the persistent daily stressors that weigh you down. Create some mental bandwidth to brainstorm new approaches and the benefits you could derive from them. An unconscious bias program that flexes with the needs of the business serves to connect a diverse workforce, and aligns naturally within your company culture becomes an important core that weathers uncertainty in a multitude of ways.

We know it’s not easy. Let us know how we can help, or request a demo of Emtrain’s Unconscious Bias program. For more info on building an unconscious bias program, download the guide on Managing Unconscious Bias.

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Laraine McKinnon
Talent and Culture Strategist Women's Advocate Former Managing Director at BlackRock
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