Don't Give up on Teaching About Unconscious Bias

BY Jonathan Yeo | September 13, 2021

Employee education about unconscious bias seems to have fallen out of fashion lately, with questions about its worth and impact. For many organizations over the last decade or so, anti-bias training had been a foundational pillar in addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). As a result of increasing critiques, however, some companies have now abandoned it, while others see continue to see value in it. The debate is covered well in this BBC story.

Which way should employers go? There’s a wealth of research that unconscious bias exists, and that it can have significant detrimental impacts at work. So we shouldn’t just give up on the effort. I believe that adjusting the approach to the messaging and education in a few key areas can help keep unconscious bias education relevant and impactful.

Having delivered varying approaches to unconscious bias through training and workshops across different industries and organizations, I’ve seen where it has made a positive impact and where it can fall short. From those experiences, I’ve identified some key challenges and the opportunities to improve.

Avoiding the Backlash

I have often wished for a replacement word for bias, because I see the resistance in people’s faces as soon as it is mentioned. For most of us, bias is a word with strongly negative connotations, so it takes more than just an assertion of “don’t worry, we’re all biased” for there to be a willingness to explore our individual propensity for it. Explaining that everyone has it–that it’s essential to how our brains operate efficiently–still doesn’t overcome our innate resistance to the word and its associations.

Any successful learning and behavior change needs us to be open and committed, and anything that raises our resistance is immediately working against that goal. Telling people they’re biased creates a significant pushback, no matter how true it may be.

Opportunity: Bias as a word and concept is already out there, and many people know something about it, so it’s not practical to avoid or replace it. However, in many scenarios, what bias creates is assumptions, and this concept is less threatening for people to wrestle with, because they can extrapolate from what they’ve likely learned previously–the importance of uncovering assumptions in decisions and strategy—to uncovering assumptions when it comes to people. 

Why the Ask Is Paradoxical

Our biases stem, in the simplest terms, from our brain being wired to process the masses of information we receive, by relying on broad assumptions. This is a survival mechanism because we don’t have the conscious-thought capacity to analyze every input and make a fully considered and calculated decision. But while on one hand we’re highlighting the limits of conscious-thought capacity, we’re also asking people to bring these assumptions out of their unconscious into that limited capacity. How do we do that? Can we expand conscious capacity? Do we displace existing conscious processes? Instead it’s implicitly positioned in the way many tasks are often assigned in the workplace: just add to an already-full plate and hope it works out.

Opportunity: Acknowledge that our capacity is limited and ask participants to identify one situation where they recognize their own bias can have a negative impact for others, one where they are willing to put conscious effort into their own behavior change. To go the extra mile, they could also commit to providing feedback when they see others acting from the same bias. 

Too Much Threat, Too Little Reward 

There is plenty of research on what motivates adults to change behaviors, and it’s pretty clear that it’s not by being scolded or threatened. While examples of the negative impacts of bias can open our eyes to what can go wrong, and perhaps build perspective or empathy, those impacts are usually fleeting and don’t lead to behavior change. What’s so often missing is getting to the positive motivation that will fuel the effort that behavior change requires. Examples and exercises can show us how we might be biased, but unconscious-bias training rarely underscores the benefits of mitigating those biases—the benefits to others, and the benefits to ourselves.

Jonathan Yeo, founder of The Potential Space (Photo courtesy of the author)

Think about one of the most oft-cited examples of unconscious bias: identical resumes submitted, but with names of varying racial or ethnic associations. In one widely noted U.S.-focused research paper, the “white-sounding names” received 50% more callbacks than those with “African-American sounding names.” That finding is shared to show that bias exists, that it has negative consequences, and to hopefully prompt a reaction of “Wow, that’s bad!” It does indeed do that for many, but without any proposed mitigation it can leave people feeling shame, disappointment, disempowerment, cynicism, or despair. In other words, helpless rather than motivated.

Opportunity: Contrast negative impacts of bias with their positive alternatives. In the resume example above, complete the emotional journey for participants by sharing examples of mitigating actions (for example, removing names from resumes) and their positive impacts (an increased qualified-candidate pool, more diverse teams). Don’t just leave the participants with what’s wrong–lead them to the benefits of getting things more right. 

People Want Growth 

For some reason, unconscious bias is often put in its own special place: a standalone training disconnected from everything else. That positioning, combined with some of the less effective approaches outlined above, can make it feel much more like compliance training than growth and development. At the least it should be part of broader learning on inclusion and inclusive behaviors. Better still, it should be embedded, recognized, or reinforced in programs on leadership, effective communication, career development, and growth mindset.

Whatever you choose to call it, there’s still an important place for unconscious bias in organizations: integrated as a part of a development curriculum, embedded in programs to foster inclusion, and positioned as an opportunity for individual and organizational growth and success. It shouldn’t just sit out on its own.

Jonathan Yeo is the founder of The Potential Space, a learning, development, and inclusion-focused consultancy. Previously, he worked at Apple for a decade in the fields of leadership development and inclusion and diversity. He will be speaking this Wed., Sept. 15, at From Day One's virtual conference on diversity recruiting. You can register here.


The Power Gap Among Labor Unions: Why Some Have New Strength–and Others Don’t

As the United Auto Workers set up picket lines last week outside of plants for General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (maker of Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge), there was a sense of familiarity, of economic history repeating itself. In times past, the UAW would roll up to a contract negotiation with all eight cylinders of its union engine roaring. There were work stoppages, but when the Big Three controlled 80% of the market, the car companies had a lot of sales to lose in enduring a long strike, so they had some willingness to compromise.Since the 1980s, though, the UAW–not to mention the United Steelworkers and other large industrial unions–have been squeezed by the global labor arbitrage that shifted work to Asia. They’ve become fewer in number, less powerful politically and forced into waves of givebacks to keep their jobs. Most galling, for the UAW, was the adoption of a two-tiered wage system—a lower rate for new hires, vs. legacy workers. The scoresheet has not been kind to labor; its share of national income has been in a long decline, one that has accelerated in this century.This year, the wealth and power pendulum has started moving the other way. The post-pandemic reordering of the global supply chain that enriched some U.S. industries–think greedflation–has given the UAW, and a few other unions the chance to muscle up again. They’re seizing the moment to demand a share of that new wealth. This is a workforce that has done everything asked of it during the pandemic to meet the needs of corporations and their customers.Which is making labor more militant, more willing to hit the bricks for better pay and benefits. We're going to see this soon in Las Vegas, where the Culinary Workers Union, 50,000 of them, may strike the major hotels and casinos if there’s no new contract. Las Vegas has been recording record month after record month of revenues since the end of the pandemic, and the unions quite reasonably expect to get a piece of those winnings. Some corporations have acknowledged as much, with the Teamsters winning a big contract with UPS. Likewise, American Airlines just settled with its pilots on a new contract in August, providing a 46% increase in compensation, as “revenge travel” hasn’t slowed. Why wouldn’t you settle with workers if your airline is filling every seat, and facing a pilot shortage over the next decade? Pilots are United and Delta have also settled. That’s the benefit of a healthy economy,  when labor and management each have more to gain than lose.The economy can’t solve every labor issue. In Hollywood, both the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild have been on strike for months against the movie studios and the streaming companies. And in warehouses and coffeeshops nationwide, Amazon and Starbucks are fighting bitterly against determined unionization efforts.  Every labor negotiation rests on the extent of the common interests among the two parties. In the UPS negotiation, each side had too much to lose to take a strike. Shippers had already been moving their UPS business to other carriers as talks dragged on. And with drivers now earning more than $100,000 annually in some places, the urge to walk rather than deliver wasn’t strong. So UPS and the Teamsters settled and each can claim victory. This is the same Teamsters union that refused yet more givebacks with foundering Yellow Freight, and allowed the company to go under. Yellow had been in the red for years and the union could not see a way forward. With demand for truckers still high, and Yellow’s assets going on the block, there will still options for its drivers.For the auto companies, business is great but business is also changing rapidly–and that’s where the mutual interests are parting. Detroit has been able to sell every pickup truck it can build, for instance. These are the industry’s most profitable vehicles. How much of that business is worth risking? But the switch from internal combustion engines to EVs has introduced a host of new technologies that is reordering the workplace, and the unions are wary. Transmission plants get replaced by battery plants, for example, and the automakers are placing some of those plant in less union-friendly geographies in the South. The UAW has seen this movie before, when robotics came on the scene and eventually displaced a wide swath of jobs.Yet neither side is playing hardball, it seems. The unions are picketing at three selected plants–one from each automaker, a switch from the days when it would focus attention on one company.  That includes a Stellantis factory in Ohio, for instance, that makes the ever-popular Jeep. The union calls it a “standup strike.” The idea is to get the message across without crippling the entire industry. GM CEO Mary Barra, a lifelong GMer and the daughter of a GM engineer, has tried to keep the temperature low: “If you’re asking for more than the company made, I think that’s not a good position,” Barra said, but added, “I think we’re in a good position to get this done.” The gap remains wide, but that was also the case with UPS and the Teamsters.Technology is also a feature in the Hollywood strike by creatives against the studios and streamers. The actors and writers see AI technology being used to deprive them of earnings and intellectual property. Talks stalled, but there is still talk. Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav tried to spread optimism, telling analysts: “We are just hopeful as a company, and I am very hopeful, that we can get that resolved. If we can get it resolved soon, then the long-term impact will be minimized.” But that optimism sounded a bit scripted, given that Warner has been willing to take a $500 million hit to earnings during the strike, and Zazlov’s lavish pay packet, $285 million over the last two years, has further impassioned workers over lavish media CEO pay.The dissonance could not be any greater in the case of Starbucks and Amazon, whose founders still exert a powerful influence on labor relations, leading to conflict. For Starbucks former CEO and chairman Howard Schultz, the battle with unions has been particularly difficult. Schultz, who grew up working class in Brooklyn, is a progressive. Starbucks pays well and has good benefits. He cares about the workforce, so he can’t understand why workers would want a union. He believes that he’s in the right position to know what they need, moreso than a union. But his view is from the top down. From that vantage point, understanding the workers’ point is view is difficult–very few business owners can do it. Henry Ford had the same stance–and his hired goons’ violent confrontation with union organizers was a turning point in UAW history.At Amazon, founder Jeff Bezos built a company by being a control freak over costs and operations and trained his senior managers that way. Unions represent a threat to that control mantra. And threatens to bring higher costs. Workers, for their part, see themselves as dehumanized labor inputs within Amazon’s system, not people. So the fight goes on, in both companies.The capital vs. labor issues this year are unique to their time–an economic situation unlike we’ve ever experienced and rapid technological developments that are rearranging traditional conflicts. The path to labor peace in the auto industry, then, may require these two old adversaries to bring more imagination and innovation to the negotiating table.  Bill Saporito is an editor at large at Inc. magazine. Previously, worked as an assistant managing editor at Time magazine and as a senior editor at Fortune.(Featured photo: United Auto Workers members walk the picket line at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., on Sept. 18, 2023. AP Photo/Paul Sancya) 

Bill Saporito | September 19, 2023

The Myth of the ‘Woke’ Corporation

“Whatever you do, lead with your values,” Apple CEO Tim Cook recently told the graduating class at Gallaudet University. Well, that leaves it wide open, doesn’t it? In Apple’s case, what values allow it to manufacture in China, a country that has crushed democracy in Hong Kong and violated the rights of millions of Uighurs on the mainland? Yet iPhones today are allowing citizens and soldiers of Ukraine to use technology to fend off the invading Russian hordes. Or consider McDonald’s, which closed some 850 stores in Russia, laying off 62,000 people. This is the same McDonald’s that is being accused by investor Carl Icahn of being complicit in ruthless treatment of pigs by vendors who supply meat for McRib sandwiches. Then there’s Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who claimed to eschew politics before tweeting, disingenuously, that he was becoming a Republican because the Democrats are the party of hate, notwithstanding the GOP affiliation with the clearly hateful and racist “replacement theory” that motivated an 18-year old domestic terrorist in Buffalo, NY, to murder 10 people. That’s not going to play well among California’s liberal Tesla owners—who now have many more EV models to choose from. And there’s no more emotional and potentially divisive topic than abortion rights. The issue is so fraught that the public relations firm Zeno advised its corporate clients to do zero–to run and hide. No, you don’t. Businesses that don’t confront such issues face the possibility that a relatively small group of white, male, you-don’t-even-have-to-say conservative legislators and regulators in states such as Texas and Oklahoma are going to dictate national policy. Which is why companies as diverse as Citigroup and Chobani quickly revised their benefits programs to include travel for out-of-state abortion services. If young people today want to work for a company that has a purpose, then defining that purpose in all its forms–political, social, environmental, racial and even local–has never been more complex for corporate America. Likewise for investors and investment companies. BlackRock has drawn fire from both conservatives for its stance on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, and from liberals for its investments in China. In Florida, the Walt Disney Co. first tried to escape the debate over that state’s so called “Don’t Say Gay” bill. But Mouse House employees, particularly its creatives, were having none of it. The company then broadcasted its dissent against the gay-bashing legislation. Disney’s support of its own LGBTQ community, in turn, made it a target for Florida’s reactionary governor Ron DeSantis, who orchestrated legislation that stripped Disney of its special tax and government status in the two Florida counties where Disney World operates. (Also potentially leaving the state on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars of bond payments.) Then DeSantis vetoed funding for a training facility for the Tampa Bay Rays in part because the team spoke up against gun violence. Apparently, the governor favors it. But Disney’s customers voted Mickey over Ron—that is, they continue to flock to the Orlando resort and watch Disney movies. Those include the thousands of LGBTQ customers who show up, and are welcomed, for unofficial Gay Days at the resorts. A Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Michigan, one of more than 700 in the U.S. In 2018, the company halted sales of assault weapons in all of its stores (Photo by RiverNorthPhotography/iStock by Getty Images) The fact that a Republican governor would try to harm a Fortune 100 company that employs more than 70,000 Floridians underscores how divisive the politics have become. The fact that consumers have largely ignored DeSantis  shows that they respect thoughtful corporate decisionmaking about controversial issues. And well they should.  Yet another mass shooting event in Texas, in Uvalde, once again focused attention on assault rifles. But it was following a mass shooting at Parkland high school in Florida, in 2018, when Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Ed Stack pulled assault rifles from the company’s stores and halted gun sales to anyone under 21 years of age. That decision would cost the company some $250 million in sales initially. But Stack, a gun owner, had had enough. He told me: “After Parkland, I said, ‘We’re done. We’re not selling these guns, we’re not selling high-capacity magazines, we’re not going to sell any guns to anyone who’s under 21.’ That was it. We’re never going to change our mind on any of that.” Sales would eventually rebound because most Americans want to ban assault rifles, too. Walmart, no paragon of wokeness, made a similar call on behalf of its customers. This is a company that is now making a big investment in health care, because it can see the great need, and opportunity, among its customers and employees. To that end, Walmart recently banned cigarette sales in many of its stores even though the company, via a subsidiary, was once the largest tobacco wholesaler in the country. Selling death while at the same time trying to prevent death is a mixed marketing message at best, so Walmart made a choice: your health matters. We’ve already watched the Trump Administration play divide and conquer with corporate America in its defenestration of the Environmental Protection Agency and the trashing of pollution regulations. In clashing with the state of California over its stringent automobile standards—Trump demanded lower fuel efficiency—the administration forced automakers to choose sides. GM, Fiat Chrysler and Toyota, conservative by nature, backed into Trump’s garage. Honda, Volkswagen, BMW and Ford (with the support of executive chair Bill Ford), boldly backed California. These firms were already moving swiftly to expand their EV offerings; siding with California enhances their EV cred and offers a market advantage by doing so. Ford’s F-150 Lighting EV pickup, for instance, is already a breakout star. Corporations need to look a decade ahead to stay ahead. Any company that wants to be aligned with the future can’t avoid addressing human rights, animal rights, government actors, health care, sustainability and the environment. Not that the path is straightforward or even logical. Consider that Texas (once again) bars state retirement and pension funds from investing in companies that want to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Also consider that Texas is the nation’s leading producer of wind energy. If you build wind turbines, doesn’t that make you anti-fossil fuel by definition? Texas pols can deny climate change, but those denials will provide little protection when a monster hurricane–one of the consequences–wipes out Galveston. (Again. In 1900, more than 6,000 people died in such a storm.) And even if Galveston is spared, homeowners in coastal areas that haven’t prepared for extreme weather tied to a warming climate are already seeing sharp increases in flood insurance, if they can buy it at all. Which is to say that even if the free market doesn’t have a conscience, it tends to be rational. The defeat of two ExxonMobil board nominees last year by an activist hedge fund that criticized its strategy around climate change didn’t suddenly transform a hydrocarbon giant into an alternative-energy outfit. But that outcome did demonstrate that ExxonMobil wasn’t as focused on the future of clean energy as it might be—and that’s a market risk shareholders don’t care to face. ExxonMobil’s investors were indeed following their own values–while at the same time addressing shareholder value. That shouldn’t be such a rare event in corporate America. And if the graduates at Gallaudet follow the advice of Apple CEO Cook, it won’t be. Bill Saporito is an editor at large at Inc. magazine.

Bill Saporito | June 12, 2022

How Juneteenth Finally Became a National Holiday

When President Biden signed legislation this week making Juneteenth a national holiday, it marked the swift rise in recognition of the day commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. After decades of delay, the movement gained momentum last summer during the protests following the murder of George Floyd, when U.S. corporations began honoring the day as part of their commitments on behalf of racial justice. Why should it matter for all Americans? “African Americans should not have to bear the burden of this history alone. Nor should Black achievement be something that only African Americans celebrate,” wrote Kevin Young, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A year ago, From Day One published this story on Juneteenth's history and meaning: Spring 2020 will be remembered in corporate circles as a whirlwind of change, with exhausting and exciting pivots by big business. Difficult conversations connected to brand identity and race were being held in the boardrooms of many corporations as weeks of Black Lives Matter protests unfolded. One of the most intriguing outcomes from those conversations is the embracing of Juneteenth, which commemorates a unique moment in American history that many citizens may not have heard about before. Many people are familiar with the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on Jan. 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln decreed that enslaved persons would now be free. Juneteenth specifically commemorates a day two and a half years later, June 19, 1865, when Gordon Granger, a U.S. Army general, relayed the emancipation orders in Texas, the last state where slaves were liberated. Landing by ship in the city of Galveston, Granger read the order: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.” The order, which affected the lives of about 250,000 people, is based on a document that was re-discovered just this week, according to the Washington Post. The National Archives on Thursday located what appears to be the original  “Juneteenth” military order, written “in the ornate handwriting of a general’s aide,” the Post reported. Given current interest in the subject, the Archives staff went looking for the original order, which had not previously surfaced, and found it. David Ferriero, head of the Archives, said of the find: “I think it’s terrific. I think the timing is just amazing.” Over the years, emancipation day has been celebrated across the U.S., initially according to the date each state was liberated, but many historians track the modern, national version to a celebration at the conclusion of the Poor People’s Campaign, held in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. Since then, recognition has steadily grown, with Texas in 1980 becoming the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. Since then, 45 other states and the District of Columbia have officially recognized the day. With that in mind, it’s fascinating to observe how a small but growing number of corporations have responded by adding Juneteenth to the list of holidays and cultural observations that their organizations will observe. The timing of the uprising in favor of racial justice was fortuitous in presenting companies with an opportunity to give employees something symbolic yet tangible: a paid day off. Among the organizations who’ve said “yes” to observing Juneteenth: the National Football League, Nike, Lyft, Target, Twitter and Square. There are a number of reasons why companies have decided to embrace Juneteenth: Companies do not want to be perceived as tone deaf during tumultuous times. It’s highly likely that these organizations already had employees focused on facilitating diversity and inclusion initiatives within the company and that Juneteenth was already a part of the conversation. Staff members may have discussed ways to show Black Americans and other employees of color that the company is interested in learning more about their cultures. Corporate commemorations of Juneteenth may be a part of rebranding culturally insensitive language, visuals, or charactersassociated with the products that the company sells. The corporate response to Black Lives Matter is probably influenced by the lessons learned only a few weeks earlier during the onset of the pandemic, when companies were challenged in their responses to put people first. When asked about how companies would be affected if they failed to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in an empathetic way, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, made the following observation: “Their brand is going to get destroyed. I mean, how you treat your employees today will have more impact on your brand in future years than any amount of advertising, any amount of anything you literally could do. Because, again, we're all suffering from this. Every single person is looking to see how their company is treating them, how their employers are treating family members and friends.” One could make the same argument that companies will be forever branded by how they did (or did not) respond to the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, brands are already dealing with swift positive and negative reactions related to the stance that they take specific to the Black Lives Matter movement and any ancillary conversations associated with the movement. Those conversations need to go beyond the recognition of one day to encompass the daily lives of Black Americans on the other 364. Statistically, blacks earn significantly less than other cohorts. After organizations recognize Juneteenth, will that spur further dialog connected to employee well-being? While Juneteenth is important, ultimately many organizations may find that most employees care just as much about the following issues: Earning more and wage transparency. Employee mobility within the organization. Being treated in a respectful manner at work. Microaggressions and how they affect employee morale. Creating safe spaces to work in and having the ability to speak up without fear of retaliation. In hastily rolling out Juneteenth holidays, corporations may be unintentionally making the mistake of focusing on creating a cultural fix within the company that might not be needed or wanted. As the flurry of companies observing Juneteenth continues, one is left to wonder who was in the room when making the decision to include Juneteenth in the company’s corporate culture. Regardless of the intention, companies need to find ways to facilitate difficult conversations related to race and their corporate culture. Many organizations may find themselves ill-equipped to handle revelations they weren’t expecting related to how their employees experience their workplaces. Ultimately by making Juneteenth a holiday, companies must also embrace the responsibility and reality that their employees will expect more from them and will want the organization to do better moving forward. While it’s wonderful watching people discover what Juneteenth is, the reality of Juneteenth is that it’s a bittersweet moment to commemorate. Don’t forget that for an additional two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves in Texas remained enslaved. That’s something to consider when you’re thinking about having your company observe Juneteenth. There’s a bigger conversation that has to be had about race and equality in the workplace. Will you be willing to have it? Finally, there is this point to consider. In a note to colleagues, a senior global payroll manager of color had this to say about her company rolling out a Juneteenth observation: "This is an incredibly generous display of thoughtful leadership. I know that as a start-up there is an immense cost associated with this and I am keenly aware that we are in a cost-saving environment. It is also incredibly difficult to navigate the environment in which we now find ourselves. I just wanted to lend my voice to say that with or without observing this particular day, this company has been incredibly gracious and effective in its acknowledgement of the struggles and issues that employees of color may be facing. I have had many discussions with my peers and what things boil down to for many of us is how history will record and remember our actions. Even more, how will we remember our actions when our grandchildren ask us about it.  I know that you will be able to look back at your leadership in a positive light.” Your employees are watching and paying attention to the actions that you take. What will you decide to do? Michelle Jackson is mission-driven to help her readers and listeners empower themselves financially, whether it’s by improving their personal finances or learning how to sell what they already know. Michelle runs the website and podcast Michelle Is Money Hungry and is the founder of the Money on the Mountain retreat focused on empowering financially single women, one conversation at a time. When she's not geeking out about personal finance, you can find her hiking in the mountains of Colorado.   

Michelle Jackson | June 18, 2021