Companies with inclusive cultures give voice to a workforce comprised of varying genders, ages, religions, races, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations. Inclusion is more than a fad or slogan. Organizations with diverse workforces consistently outperform less diverse competitors while attracting top talent. Despite these benefits, significant gaps in opportunities for minorities, women and members of the LGBTQ community remain.

The CEO of any organization is more likely to be named John than to be a woman, and white candidates are 50% more likely to receive a callback for an interview than Black candidates. Today’s leaders must make significant progress by taking meaningful steps to improve diversity and inclusion from the C-suite to the front line. Real change starts at the top with commitment, intention and accountability.

Understanding the Problem

There are many historical and sociological factors that cause certain populations to experience more barriers to success than others. Those who have not experienced bias or exclusion may be blind to challenges others face. Therefore, leaders must heighten their awareness of both conscious and unconscious biases to create inclusive workplace cultures.

Bias is part of human nature. Our minds process tiny bits of data to make quick judgments every second of the day, most of which happens subconsciously. Overcoming bias in the workplace requires leaders to improve awareness of these unconscious assumptions and their impacts on decision-making.

Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is a collection of preferences, attitudes and stereotypes that influence thinking and behavior in ways people don’t realize. It’s not only about race, gender or economic status— although it can be. One famous example of unconscious bias involved an update to iPhone screens’ functionality, requiring people to swipe right to hide an app. Swiping right is easy to do while holding a phone in your right hand but difficult with the left hand. Considering left-handed people only make up about 10% of the population, they are frequently overlooked in product design.

Bias in Recruiting

Another example of unconscious bias is affinity bias – the tendency for people to feel most comfortable around individuals who resemble themselves. Sometimes when hiring managers want a candidate who is a “good culture fit,” they inadvertently seek out someone who looks and sounds like the rest of the team, leading to a lack of diversity. Many industries exclude diverse talent pools through outdated and biased recruiting practices, such as only recruiting from elite universities. This practice disregards individuals’ expertise and abilities because they lack the connections or resources to attend those institutions. Several studies have also shown that resumes with African American-sounding names are less likely to get callbacks, and men are twice as likely to be hired as women. Only 25% of C-suites are made up of women. Worse, only 4% of those leaders are women of color. In nearly every employment category, women of color are the most underrepresented population compared to white men, men of color and white women.

Another common issue is beauty bias. People who are perceived as attractive are often held in higher regard than their plainer-looking counterparts. For example, in his book “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell revealed that, in the U.S., less than 15% of males are over 6 feet tall, yet nearly 60% of Fortune 500 CEOs are over 6 feet tall. Recruiters are not likely seeking exclusively tall employees, revealing that unconscious bias could be to blame.

How Millennials Are Changing the Workforce

More than 44% of millennials classify themselves as non-white, making them the largest and most diverse generation in American history. They define diversity differently than previous generations, seeing it as a mix of unique identities, experiences and ideas rather than solely based on race and gender. Gen Xers and baby boomers are more likely to focus on representation and equal opportunities while millennials focus on teamwork and creating inclusive environments. Millennials believe that diversity and inclusion programs improve economic opportunities and outcomes to encourage individualism, collaboration and innovation. To attract and retain millennial talent, organizations must demonstrate a commitment to creating inclusive work environments.

What Makes a Leader Inclusive?

Thoughtful organizational missions, policies and practices are essential for inclusivity, but it ultimately comes down to individual leaders. Managers’ words and actions have the most impact on employees. People who feel genuinely included collaborate more effectively and are more inclined to share ideas and opinions.

Research by Deloitte University found that inclusive leaders share six core traits:

  1. Visible commitment: They talk about their commitment to diversity, take real action to challenge the status quo and hold others accountable to make inclusion a priority.
  2. Humility: Inclusive leaders are humble and admit when they don’t know something or have made a mistake, creating space for others to contribute freely without fear of being wrong.
  3. Awareness of bias: They show personal awareness and openness to feedback about their blind spots.
  4. Curiosity about others: These leaders are described as open-minded, good listeners that enjoy learning about others and can demonstrate empathy.
  5. Cultural intelligence: They are sensitive to cultural differences and adapt to accommodate and include them.
  6. Effective collaboration: Inclusive leaders empower teams by encouraging diversity of thought, psychological safety and team cohesion.

How to Address Bias in Hiring Practices

Objective hiring practices are essential for creating diverse and inclusive workplaces. These simple changes can address biases in recruiting:

  • Set firm goals for a diverse candidate pool. If the organization is not attracting a diverse group of applicants, they should look closely at the job description and their overall reputation as an employer.
  • Use blind applications in the candidate review process. One study found that, when companies used blind applications, a woman was 25 to 46% more likely to be hired. Use a special software or simply a black marker to hide identifying information like names, age or gender from resumes before the hiring team reviews applications.
  • Limit referral hiring. It is easy to fall into the affinity bias trap when relying on referrals. Referred candidates are usually from a common social circle and likely look, speak and think like the hiring team, decreasing the chances of building a diverse workforce.
  • Standardize interview questions. Unstructured interviews are unreliable for predicting success. Using standardized questions and an interview scorecard minimizes bias and allows the interviewer to compare candidates objectively.

Equalize Access to Leadership

Access to company leadership must be driven by business demands and the team’s needs rather than what employees want or expect. Some feel more comfortable asking for their boss’s time than others, often for cultural reasons. Inclusive managers make an effort to reach out to every employee to ensure they are comfortable asking for time when they need it. They encourage quieter team members to contribute by asking probing questions, and they refrain from holding meetings outside of business hours. After-hours meetings are difficult for caregivers, students and people with demanding personal lives – providing an unfair advantage to anyone with fewer outside commitments.

Addressing Bias Through Development

Managers can improve inclusivity in their teams through the thoughtful development of employees. Creating clear, documented evaluation criteria for performance evaluations is essential. Focus on performance – not potential – and distinguish personality traits from skills to prevent assessments from becoming about employees’ likeability, which could be attributed to unconscious bias. It also avoids vague evaluations that don’t help employees improve and grow. Organizations can also set clear policies regarding promotions and pay raises and share them with all employees. Transparency about staffing and salary decisions reduces pay disparities.

Quality anti-bias training and leadership development can give leaders the tools they need to create an inclusive workplace. Author of “Making Diversity a Competitive Advantage,” Dr. Tyrone Holmes, tells us that employee development should “help individuals develop the skills they need to effectively communicate, resolve conflict, and solve problems in diverse settings. Such skills include the ability to communicate across cultural differences, the ability to resolve diversity-based conflicts, the ability to provide coaching and mentoring for a diverse range of employees, and the ability to contribute to the creation of culturally inclusive environments.”

The Time for Change is Now

The world is facing challenges that require effective leaders and teams. Leaders must examine their own unconscious bias and take ownership of their role in creating a more equitable world. Leaders that face today’s challenges with humility and curiosity while committing to meaningful change will build diverse, high-performing teams that are well-positioned to thrive in the future.