How Managers Can Help to Overcome Discrimination in the Workplace

Industry Advice Leadership

You were turned down for a promotion despite your experience and qualifications because you are pregnant. You received less pay for the same work as others because you have a disability. You were overlooked for a job during the hiring process because you’re over 50.

These scenarios are all examples of discrimination in the workplace—an issue that many organizations still deal with today, says Mary Ludden, faculty director for Northeastern University’s Project Management and Leadership domains.

“Many organizations know they have challenges around diversity and are unlocking strategies to overcome them, but it’s still an uncomfortable topic to talk about,” she says. “It’s important to open the dialogue around why it exists, what we can do about it, and why we aren’t tackling it in a more open fashion.”

Clearly, discrimination in the workplace is still very much a problem. In 2017, for example, nearly 85,000 workplace discrimination charges were filed nationwide with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), resulting in almost $400 million for victims.

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Overcoming Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

Luckily, more businesses today are tackling these uncomfortable but important conversations and are working to create a more inclusive environment for employees—not out of fear of lawsuits, but because it’s also a competitive advantage, Ludden says.

“When your workforce lacks diversity, you risk attrition by cultivating a work environment that has a single mindset, and profit erosion,” she says. “One of the biggest areas organizations can focus on is tackling unconscious bias.”

Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. One example: perceiving that a Gen-Y app developer candidate is better qualified than a Baby Boomer app developer because Gen-Yers are digital natives.

Unconscious biases play a significant role in workplace discrimination, according to a McKinsey report. It found that gender, ethnic, and cultural diversity—particularly within executive teams—correlate to financial performance across multiple countries worldwide. Ethnically diverse executive teams are 33 percent more profitable, while those who are not underperform compared to their industry peers by 29 percent, the report found.

“Overcoming discrimination in the workplace starts with leadership and trickles down the organization,” Ludden says. Here are four steps she suggests that managers can take to tackle discrimination and improve diversity within their organizations.

Four Strategies for Managers to Address Discrimination and Improve Diversity

1. Start at the top.

An organization’s executive team and managers need to acknowledge and accept the problem first, Ludden says. Without full buy-in, messaging will fall flat and strategies won’t stick.

“Everything starts from the top: There needs to be agreement that diversity in the workplace is a priority. Organizations also need to invest in programs and resources in order for it to cascade throughout the organization,” she says. “Leaders need to understand that tackling discrimination needs to become part of the daily routine to make sure it becomes part of the conversation.”

To start, managers should take an honest look at their teams’ make-up to see whether it’s reflective of their customer base, Ludden says. If it’s not, consider this a baseline for improvement.

2. Enlist outside experts.

Leadership teams that want to make a change must guard against groupthink—the well-intentioned decisions that are spurred by the urge to conform or discourage dissent. One way to do this is by hiring an outside expert who’s skilled in organizational change. This person should gather data on the make-up of the employee population, consider how the leadership team reflects the ratios, and make recommendations for incremental changes.

“Bringing in someone who’s not part of the team will give your organization a jolt of consciousness, push you outside your comfort zone, and give you a dose of reality,” Ludden says. “That’s what you need—someone to push you out of groupthink and into reality.”

3. Measure your progress.

Without evidence of action, plans just become thinking, Ludden says. To prevent diversity from merely becoming an ongoing agenda topic, you need to develop ways to gauge your progress.

“You might think that you’re making strides and holding yourself accountable, but without measuring yourself against actual data, you’ll never really know,” she says. “That’s why you need to develop action plans to take it from concept to reality. That’s how you keep yourself accountable.”

4. Gather feedback.

One good gauge for your progress is how willing your employees are to talk about discrimination and diversifying the workplace, Ludden says. Lunch-and-learn sessions are one way to frame these conversations.

“These are good opportunities to have broad conversations and ask questions about how employees think we’re doing in this initiative,” she says. “Lunch-and-learns create a safe environment for feedback, encourage conversation around what we could do better, and gauge whether there are gaps in what [the leadership teams] have communicated.”

After offering a lunch-and-learn as a time for open conversation, it’s equally important to send follow-up emails to your team to say “thank you” for their contributions, summarize key points, and create an action plan—all of which validate that their opinions matter.

“I think we’ve made some strides in overcoming discrimination in the workplace, but we still have a long way to go,” Ludden says. “There are still disparities in salaries and far too few women in the C-suite, for example. We’ve taken great steps forward but there needs to be a sustained effort. As much as I have great hope, I think there’s more to do and we need to continue to push against barriers to truly adopt a more diverse workforce model.”

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