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Bruzzese: Soft economy can strengthen workplace biases

The American political landscape has changed with an African-American being a serious contender for president, but in the workplace, biases may become stronger as the struggling economy puts more stress on employees, one diversity expert says.

“I think assumptions are being made that we’re a lot better on diversity and inclusion,” says Steve L. Robbins, Ph.D. “Sure, some attitudes and beliefs are not expressed as much because people are aware of the penalties for doing so. But what people don’t know is that they still may have a lot of biases. There are much more subtle things going on.”

Some of those “subtle” attitudes may include biases against promoting people who are overweight, or the jokes around the water cooler about someone’s age.

At the same time, the ailing economy and continuing layoffs mean employers and employees are feeling more stress, and that can lead to more problems.

“In stressful situations, we resort to the things we know, and we start excluding people whom we see as strangers,” Robbins says. “But in order to survive in today’s marketplace, we have to realize that it’s new ideas that keep organizations ahead and that it’s OK to think outside the box. You’re not going to get that if you close yourself off.”

For example, Robbins says that in tough times, companies may only use certain suppliers, and not be open to doing business with diverse groups. He says that such actions can, in reality, make things worse because they make it harder for a company to compete.

“That means you don’t get to know them and what they have to offer. As Martin Luther King says, we’re not getting to know ‘the content of their character.”‘

While many companies offer diversity and inclusion workshops, the problem is that the training is often forgotten as soon as an employee returns to the reality of everyday work life.

“As an individual, you have to make a personal commitment to put it into practice, and companies have to make an organizational commitment to do the same,” Robbins says. “We need to be more open-minded to other people and experiences.”

Robbins says some signs of unintentional intolerance in the workplace can include:

- High turnover among certain groups of people. For example, if people of particular ethnic groups – Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans – leave at higher rates, that is a red flag.

- Poor performance. People often are blamed when things go wrong, but the real culprit may be a company culture where stress, lack of opportunity and exclusion leads to lower productivity.

- Homogenous leaders. The vast majority of CEOs for Fortune 500 companies are white males, and that is repeated even in the C ranks of management. If a company truly wants to walk the walk of diversity and inclusion, it needs to do so in the management ranks.

- Daily jabs. The “innocent” jokes about weight, gender, race and religion that take place daily in a workplace says a lot about a company’s attitude toward tolerance. This lack of respect by workers for others who are different than them can spell trouble, as well as the celebration of “exclusion” holidays or the use of mascots or symbols.

If you’re interested in more information on how you or your company can become more aware of your subtle biases and how to change them, consider Robbins’ book, “What If? Short Stories to Spark Diversity Dialogue” (Davies-Black, $18.95).

Anita Bruzzese is author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy…and How to Avoid Them” (www.45things.com). Write to her c/o: Business Editor, Gannett News Service, 7950 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, VA 22107. For a reply, include a SASE.

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