In 2005, I conducted a session for SHRM on Best Practices in Diversity/Inclusion. I recently came across my presentation and, out of curiosity, reviewed my slides and notes to see what may have changed over the last seven years. It turns out, quite a bit! First, let’s look at the improvements we have seen.

  1. Most companies understand the need to have a diverse workforce and there has been progress regarding company leadership commitment.
  2. Recruiting functions realize there is not one specific recruiting structure that is best. The focus is on sourcing and funding.
  3. Overall corporate websites have created a “day to day” atmosphere with videos and a focus on a respectful environment.
  4. There has been further development on internal employees through mentoring and affinity programs/groups.
  5. Companies have increased efforts on diversity supplier programs.
  6. Companies have started or increased diversity/inclusion training.

All this said, discrimination still lives. Why? Susan Fiske, a Princeton University psychologist (Forbes, “The New Face of Workplace Discrimination” Nov. 2009) said it is because we as a society are used to thinking all prejudices are based on stereotypical groups such as race, culture, gender, age and the like. It’s a traditional view that prejudices come from a negative attitude and/or negative beliefs regarding types or categories of people. As a response to this, Fiske developed a two-by-two model showing dimensions of perceived warmth and competence – the two fundamental characteristics on which people judge others.

Her model captured not only negative prejudices but also positive ones. “Groups such as the middle class fall into the high-warmth, high-competence quadrant.” These folks have a better chance of getting hired and mentored, and potentially receive undeserved favoritism, which might be called “mirroring.” We like people who are like us. It is human nature. “In direct contrast, groups perceived with low-warmth, low-competence for example in the United States groups such as homeless people and undocumented immigrants, evoke disgust and an urge to avoid them.”

The article goes on to describe all quadrants but at the end of the day, Fiske said the problem is largely unintended and invisible as our behaviors and thoughts are inherent in our everyday activities. “When diversity efforts focus exclusively on recruiting, the result is too often that the firm hires people because they are different but then fails to promote them – precisely because they are not the same.”

So how do we address such behaviors, especially if we don’t know they are taking place? First, work to learn and recognize bias behaviors that come in different forms and identify them as a team – we are working against a much more subtle, insidious form of discrimination here. Address when managers show inequity with their subordinates – such as fail to promote specifically because they do things differently. Increase mentoring against discrimination and understand the modeling that Fiske identified in the article.

She concludes: “In the business world, inclusive leadership means venturing beyond one’s own perspective. It’s not just a matter of fighting blatant, intentional acts of discrimination. That’s the easy part.”

Mary Claire Ryan is a Partner with inTalent Consulting Group

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