There was a time when employees seemed to seek out superficial workplace perks, such as foosball tables, chartered buses and catered lunches. Now, a new consciousness highlights the need for intangible benefits, like feelings of safety and equity in the workplace, when it comes to job satisfaction. This shift demands more of agency leaders, and the old way of managing teams can only go so far.

Leaders need the tools to adjust to today’s new reality and create safe and equitable work environments. Understanding the connection between company culture, social justice issues and employee wellness is critical for leaders today. Learning and development (L&D) must challenge people and organizations to explore elements of power and privilege as they relate to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. This understanding uncovers how everyday practices can reinforce the problems organizations aim to solve and threaten employee well-being as a result.

In general, organizations understand that increasing DEI creates feelings of safety that positively impact employees. A global leadership survey by PwC found that 76% of leaders understand that DEI is a priority, yet only 5% of organizations have DEI programs that can be considered successful. Data from the same survey suggest that this disconnect exists because a significant majority of leaders are trapped in superficial levels of DEI work.

Leaders are not only charged with responding to this need by reimagining employee well-being but also with taking responsibility for their role and embracing the growth opportunity that exists when they are pushed to examine the impact of unintentionally harmful practices in the workplace. This goes beyond training programs. This requires facing hard truths, and the first step requires understanding how biases operate within individuals, relationships and organizations alike.

Biases in the Workplace

Unconscious bias happens when associations about people deep within the brain are activated without our awareness and then used to inform decisions and interactions with others. Every individual has biases in some form, even if they are and this influences how leaders interact with employees and make decisions in the workplace. Biases manifest in actions that can send messages that make employees feel discriminated against because of certain traits or identities, leading them to feel excluded. When an employee carries these feelings, especially for an extended period of time, the resulting trauma will impact their commitment to the organization and leave a lasting impact on how they perceive their value as an individual.

Discussions about biases as a workplace issue has mostly focused on acknowledging that they exist. For leaders who want to actively address the issue, little guidance is available to change harmful systems, and the available literature is helpful but limited in presenting the complexities of bias in the workplace. In reality, biases are multi-layered, occurring in individuals, between and among all levels of employees, and intrinsic in structural operations. Effective leaders understand that uncovering and managing biases in the workplace requires strategies at all three levels to improve employee well-being.

Creating Safe and Equitable Work Environments

Understanding biases starts with the individual. This individual level is critical because it builds a leader’s capacity to implement and sustain positive changes in an organization. Research shows that leaders may enforce harmful standards that were in place years before they were employed and are accepted as part of society, so they are encouraged to accept this reality, assume they participated in the problem, and demonstrate their commitment to individual and company transformation by fully engaging in the process. This is an opportunity for leaders to own their part in managing biases as the drivers of change in their organization.

Uncovering individual strengths as well as opportunities for correction facilitates this transformation. Encourage leaders to seek out opportunities to assess their levels of bias-consciousness using tools that can be used as self-report mechanisms. An informed leader will understand when they are more likely to act on automatic associations, for example when they are stressed or pressed for time, and intentionally pause before acting from a place of bias. This moment of awareness, brief as it may be, will have long-term benefits for their team members.

Understanding how biases operate within an individual informs interactions with others. Biases are built into supervisory relationships and groups because of workplace hierarchies, so it’s imperative to mitigate biases in these areas. When a leader learns how employees experience their leadership, they open the lines of communication thereby getting feedback to improve the supervisory dynamic and deepening their  awareness of their own leadership and the support employees need but may not vocalize. In this process, it is important to build trust and determine an employee’s readiness to engage in such conversations; failing to do so exacerbates tension and reinforces toxic environments.

It’s also important for leaders to consider employee well-being in their day-to-day roles by seeking out and implementing tools that assess if a team member is using bias-conscious practices and behaviors. Setting group agreements or utilizing consensus-based decision making can indicate what is going well, what needs more attention, and what actions have not been previously considered.

A bias-conscious leader can use the awareness they developed about their individual biases to take responsibility and candidly ask others how their biases manifest in workplace relationships. These actions facilitate the open communication necessary to break down biases among employees and teams.

Biases that exist within individuals and in relationships are deeply connected to those that permeate organizations. Recognizing biases at the organizational level occurs at the broadest scale possible, from recruiting, interviewing, and hiring to staff development, performance evaluation and management, and company-wide policies. Asking critical questions within each of these areas can indicate what an organization is doing well, what needs more attention, and what had not been previously considered. At the organizational level, there is the added responsibility of measurement to determine if the changes made are having the intended effect on employee well-being.

When a leader models bias-conscious behavior, teams become aware of and openly discuss the changes needed to foster an environment that is responsive to employee needs. This practice of understanding employee perspectives and acting according to their needs sends the message that employees are valued not just for what they bring to an organization’s bottom line but for who they are as human beings.

Taking Action

To truly facilitate transformation, learning leaders must challenge what DEI processes and initiatives currently exist and build mechanisms to identify and mitigate biases on all levels with the purpose of linking these efforts to employee well-being. Leaders have a duty to examine how they are supporting employees and creating environments that are safe, equitable, and inclusive, and L&D plays a key role in helping them do so.

The process of becoming bias-conscious, as an individual and eventually as an organization, is not static. It is a cycle that requires consistent assessment to determine if the right practices are in place, how they might be improved upon and what might be missing. The best use of the information that comes from this process is incorporating DEI goals and activities into an organization’s broader strategic plan. Doing so builds each goal’s visibility and accountability, demonstrating that an organization’s commitments to DEI are not just a formality but something it embraces because it is truly invested in the inherent value of each employee.