The AltoPartners Guide to Diversity and Inclusion : Conscious inclusion – a guide to reducing unconscious bias in the workplace

October 28, 2022 Share this article:

Conscious Inclusion

Whether we admit it or not, we all have biases. They arise from our life experiences, from our mental models, and from how we were raised.

If that’s the case, what can leaders do to ensure that their workplace is one that deals with issues like microaggressions as they happen – and what can be done to prevent them from happening in the first place?

The answer is to do the hard and nuanced work of conscious inclusion, says Maureen Alphonse-Charles, Senior Vice President of Talent, Diversity and Equity, Diversified Search Group / Koya Partners, a member of AltoPartners.

Alphonse-Charles describes the work of conscious inclusion as being a process of moving from putting people in boxes to understanding that people are individuals. “We need to listen and learn so as to understand where people are truly coming from as opposed to making assumptions. And where we make assumptions, we need to try to be in a space where we can manage those biases. This in turn allows us to manage ourselves in our roles as leaders,” she says.

What is conscious inclusion in the workplace?

Alphonse-Charles says that for an organisation, conscious inclusion means ensuring that there are policies, procedures, guidelines and agreements in place which reflect the diverse make-up of our society. “There are voices that were not heard in the past – now we are being intentional about ensuring that all voices are heard.”

In the journey towards conscious inclusion (because every organisation is at a different point on that journey) “we are aware of conscious discrimination. We are avoiding equating diversity with reverse discrimination. The goal is to provide a level playing field. In the search business, we want equal opportunity for everyone, and we realise that bias comes in a number of forms. The word here is equity.”

For Alphonse-Charles, conscious inclusion starts at the individual level.

Conscious inclusion for individuals

Alphonse-Charles counsels curiosity about oneself as a first step. “There needs to be an understanding that everyone has bias and that it comes in a series of forms – it can be issues of race, class, geography, age, learning style, pedigree… the list goes on and on.”

She recommends taking steps to find out what one’s own biases are. “I highly recommend Harvard’s Implicit Association Test – it’s something you can do quietly on your own and will go a long way to helping find out what your implicit biases are.”

The next step? “Go towards your biases rather than running away from them. So if your bias is against a particular racial group, try to get to know a person from that group so that you are no longer looking at a homogenous group, but rather working to understand areas of commonality.”

Understanding your biases means working on what you need to do to neutralise them, being more objective and thus more productive. “When everyone is thinking about these issues, it leads to the optimisation of workplaces,” she says.

Working on biases also means cultivating an understanding of the audience, culture and corporate environment. “In different settings, you have to respond in different ways. So, the best thing you can do is observe, listen and try to understand the context in order to be as effective as possible and to act appropriately when you spot or become aware of antagonism in the workplace, whether in the form of subtle microaggressions or more overt aggression.”

How can leaders deal with microaggressions and overt racism?

Alphonse-Charles says that Koya Partners uses frameworks to manage aggression by providing templates to create community accountability. Broadly, the steps in dealing with an instance of microaggression or an aggression (which a leader may have witnessed or which may have been reported) are these:

  • Be aware that the first reaction will be for everyone to scurry away or to react with embarrassment.
  • People need to understand that something has occurred and that it has to be named. A good way to do that is to ask questions: “What did you say? What were your intentions?”
  • A dialogue will look at alternative approaches and strategies to what has been said and how everyone can move beyond it. This might be an offline conversation with the party who committed the aggression that looks at what came across, how it landed, and how it might be managed in the future. “Maybe you didn’t mean this, but you created harm.” Suggest that they do an unconscious bias test like the one from Harvard.
  • Policies and procedures will help to make sure instances like these are not repeated.
  • But if there is a repeat, have an offline conversation with the person, reminding them that they have been in this space before.

“This is very careful, nuanced work,” Alphonse-Charles says. The aim is to move from “we’ve had a microaggression, someone’s hurt” to a place where the entire community is in a different place. “It takes dialogue; it takes intervention; it takes intentionality. Timing is important too. What you don’t want is to have something occur and stand back and be silent. Those days are over.” She says it is important to ensure that the group that was harmed doesn’t feel excluded.

“They need to know they have advocates who are supporting them, who have seen what has occurred and that it will be addressed as a community. Community accountability is restorative justice in action, it’s a space in which you turn a negative and painful experience into one in which the community is a lot more accountable, more aware and thoughtful about actions – and actions have to match words.” And it’s not just a matter of apologising. “We’re in different times now. Ten years ago maybe an apology would have worked. Now you have to name what you did and then say what you are going to do about it. It has to be as specific as that.

The work is never done though. “When you do this a couple of times it becomes common practice, and before you know it you shift away from that issue. But you might then move into other biases – disability, veteran status, LGBTQ+ individuals, the list goes on.”

How can search consultants help?

Alphonse-Charles says search consultants need to be astute and observant. By listening and being action-oriented, consultants can help clients define what they mean by diversity and why they are doing it. “You want to avoid tokenism. Your diversity initiatives need to be thoughtful and well-rounded.”

What can the CEO do?

While it is ideal to have a CEO who is a self-aware leader, usually the CEO would not be aware of everyday, smaller issues. But small issues mount up. Alphonse-Charles says the first order of business is to make sure that the CEO has bought into the importance of inclusion for the entire work environment so that it becomes a part of the value system of the organisation.

In practice, the issues can be dealt with as a collaboration with human resources or with a chief diversity officer, or there might be occasions when an outside consultant is brought in.

“The key is to ensure that there are steps and that the steps are taken. The CEO sets the tone by virtue of values, by ensuring that inclusion is embedded in the entire strategy of the organisation.”

One way to do that is to create a “safe space” to foster meaningful conversation and learning within the office environment.

The CEO and others at the executive level also need to demonstrate inclusive behaviour. Doing their own work on their own biases retools and refines their leadership, says Alphonse-Charles.

For example: When someone in an exco meeting has asked the only woman in the room to make tea, it’s possible to step back and say: “I am sorry, I made assumptions I should not have made, I am going to make my own tea.” The same applies to minute-taking and counselling employees (it’s a responsibility that goes with a specific role, not something “women are good at”).

Behaviour like this can go a long way, says Alphonse-Charles. “We all make mistakes. It takes humility, but an acknowledgement like this demonstrates awareness and curiosity. Identifying your own biases as a leader is as important a tool as how you put your strategy together.”

Share your diversity experiences and dilemmas here - let’s see how we can help.

Maureen Alphonse-Charles
Managing Director, Executive Search AltoPartners Boston