Employee Relations

Combating bias in your workplace


Did you miss “Before Bias and Harassment: Building your Business on a Culture of Respect” with Kate Edwards, Beatrice Stein, Kim Kurlanchik Russen, and Kutina Ruhumbika at the International Restaurant and Food Service show?

Preventing sexual harassment has been all the buzz recently due to high-profile cases and new state and local laws. But let’s not forget the broader picture – that building our workplaces on a culture of mutual respect not only prevents sexual harassment, but also discourages harassment, bullying and discrimination in general.

We should start by fessing up… we all have inherent biases. As humans, our biases enable us to supplement the 40 bits of information we can process in any given moment (out of the 11 million bits that confront us) with a fuller picture of our surroundings based on assumptions.

At work, however, bias can color our perceptions in a destructive way. The first step in building a culture of respect is understanding what those biases are. Here are a few examples of the biases that can influence us at work:

  • Affinity bias: Positive bias towards someone because of a trait you share (e.g. you went to the same college)
  • Halo or horns effect: Attributing an overall positive or negative judgment to someone because of one positive or negative quality (e.g. positive bias towards someone who is attractive)
  • Contrast bias: Assessing someone based on contrast with others, rather than on an absolute set of standards (e.g. when interviewing, you contrast a candidate with others you have interviewed to decide who’s best qualified)

How can we build our own workplace culture of respect? According to our panel, the answer boils down to three practices – clearly articulating expectations, acknowledging biases and cultivating open communication.

  1. Start by articulating your core values. These are your employees’ guiding light, the set of standards you hold everyone to equally. Your core values allow employees to understand what’s expected when they step in the door.
  2. Help your team understand their own biases. For example, Beatrice starts every new hire orientation by asking how many years of hospitality experience each employee has and talking about the preconceptions that we bring to any new job.
  3. Encourage open communication. One California restaurant, Homeroom, implemented a color-coding system for employees to report harassment. This system places complete trust in the employee’s judgment, responding in a pre-established way to each warning level. Kutina also recommends using “stay interviews” (the mid-career alternative to the exit interview) to gather employees’ honest feedback. Simply having coffee once per week with a different team member can help ‘take the pulse’ of your company’s cultural health.

Following this simple recipe can help establish a culture of respect in your workplace. Ultimately, however, developing a culture of respect boils down to the behaviors your leaders exemplify. Before we expect anything from our employees, we need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

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Aurora Polanco
HR Consultant
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Tiffani DeAngelis
HR Coordinator
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