Creating a Culture of Belonging: Addressing Workplace Bias in Tech

These strategies will help organizations cultivate inclusion and address bias in the tech workplace.

Nathan Eddy

April 26, 2024

7 Min Read
diverse employees collaborating

To address unconscious biases and microaggressions in the tech workplace, HR leaders must develop strategies to foster a culture of inclusion where all employees feel valued and empowered to contribute.

Setting up educational training and employee resource groups to teach a workforce about unconscious bias in open and welcoming settings is important — as important as implementing hiring strategies that focus on bringing in diverse candidates from various backgrounds.

The most important thing for HR leaders to do is empower their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) teams in developing training programs.

"For training and workshops to be most effective, the leaders running them need to feel comfortable," said Hired CEO Josh Brenner.

From there, it's important that HR leaders make sure the training and workshops developed fit effectively into their workplace schedules and allow their employees the time to take and enjoy the workshops in a relaxed environment.

"Creating supportive networks and fostering allyship within an organization should begin with leadership, including senior and middle management and HR," Brenner said. "However, it's equally important for all members of the organization to commit to inclusivity."

For instance, studies have revealed that women are more likely to be interrupted than men at work.

Related:Women in IT: 'Significant Strides' Have Been Made, Yet Challenges Persist

To tackle this issue, Brenner said men could use their voices to amplify their female colleagues, noting being an ally is more than just a label.

"It's a lifelong commitment to building relationships with marginalized individuals or groups," he said.

Wallenberg pulled quote

Krishna Subramanian, co-founder and COO of Komprise, said often unconscious bias persists in policies because the methodologies created decades ago are still in use without realizing the bias they propagate.

"It's smart to take a step back — maybe even with the help of an objective outsider — to examine daily practices and policies for potential bias," said Subramanian, who was named a "2021 Top 100 Women of Influence" by Silicon Valley Business Journal.

For example, user testing for business applications often focuses on male users — changing this to include female users and their feedback will expand the usability of products for a broader audience.

"Another example is social cues," she said. "Small talk often centers around sporting events like football that may not be closely followed by everyone."

Subramanian urged managers to pick a range of topics as icebreakers to reduce the perception of microaggression.

Related:Investing in Diversity to Fix IT Skills Shortages

"Or consider encouraging diversity in company-sponsored lunches and outings," she added. "Picking a range of cuisines for company-sponsored meals can signal greater openness to diversity."

Establishing ERGs, Prioritizing Communication

Paul Wallenberg, senior manager of technology services at technology staffing, recruiting, and culture firm LaSalle Network, believes the formation of employee resource groups (ERGs) can help HR departments tackle unconscious bias and develop educational structures for tackling those issues.

"The challenge with navigating and correcting microaggressions is people that are doing them often don't know they're doing it," he said. "There's a subtlety and an indirectness to them that people may not understand."

ERGs can help dismantle the constructs those people have been working within for their entire careers — but Wallenberg notes there is no "one size fits all" solution.

Hannah Johnson, senior vice president for tech talent programs at CompTIA, agrees, noting that the important factor is that any DEI efforts must be nuanced to target what's important to that organization.

She urges leadership to prioritize transparency by openly communicating with their organization about issues, plans, and anticipated outcomes.

"This involves sharing feedback received, proposed actions, and the expected results over a defined period, such as three to 12 months, with a commitment to regular updates through various channels like Slack, email, or townhall meetings," she said.

Johnson added that continuous dialogue is also crucial for actual change to occur.

Rather than implementing generic training programs, Johnson advises addressing identified issues and insights gathered from data.

"This approach ensures that training effectively addresses potential unconscious biases or microaggressions within the organization, contributing to more impactful and meaningful change," she said.

Building Inclusivity, Surveying Employees

Business leaders can take several measures to create an inclusive organizational culture that promotes belonging among all employees.

First, business leaders can feel confident in their decision-making by establishing clear recruitment, hiring, and promotion guidelines that ensure fairness and mitigate bias.

From the very onset of the job search, organizations should ensure that the language in their job descriptions is inclusive and doesn't inadvertently alienate underrepresented talent from applying to the role.

Leveraging technologies such as Textio can be an effective method of keeping implicit, unconscious bias from creeping in.

Subramanian pulled quote

Brenner said businesses should always approach talent acquisition from the perspective of seeking employees who are a "cultural add" as opposed to a cultural fit, which often favors candidates from homogeneous backgrounds.

"Most importantly, organizations can promote diversity and inclusion by holding leaders and teams accountable," he explained.

This can be done by setting specific DEI goals, tracking progress, and tying performance evaluations and incentives to DEI outcomes.

To ensure equity and belonging for all employees, regardless of their background or identity, it is crucial for business leaders to embed DEI principles into every aspect of the organization's policies, procedures, and decision-making processes.

"By doing this, we can create systemic changes that promote diversity and inclusion," Brenner said.

Wallenberg believes employee surveys and resource groups can serve as effective indicators of how employees are feeling about issues of diversity and inclusion.

Third-party organizations offer consulting services for measuring aspects such as organizational development and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) principles, albeit at a cost, he said.

"However, with robust HR or learning and development departments, internal handling is feasible, given the available tools," Wallenberg said.

Surveys can be swiftly created using online platforms, and publicly accessible cultural indexes aid in assessing organizational health regarding these matters.

Focus on Outcomes, Not Budgets

From Subramanian's perspective, putting DEI practices in place in an organization does not have to mean implementing big programs that need to be managed and are expensive.

For example, "if a company does a lot of its socialization after-hours, it may hurt employees with kids who need to leave work on time," she said. "Holding events during work hours could help rectify this."

In another example, some employees are reluctant to speak publicly about their accomplishments or to voice opinions. This does not mean they are not good producers — but they might be shy and need encouragement by supervisors.

"Asking employees to email their notes ahead of a meeting might help level the playing field so a few loud voices don't dominate the discussion," Subramanian said.

Small acts like these can help everyone feel included and allow different personalities to shine through.

Subramanian points out that if leadership shows they care about different perspectives and those who have non-traditional approaches, this can go a long way in dampening unconscious bias and its harmful effects.

"No matter what the policies state, if leaders' actions don't match the policies, employees won't trust it," she said. "Paying attention to the details and ensuring inclusivity day-to-day is important to making a meaningful difference."

Johnson encourages HR leaders to leverage available tools and networks to collect data and insights effectively.

She said exchange with their peers in similar industries can provide valuable insights into best practices and available resources.

"Particularly in tech, addressing issues like bro culture requires facilitating discussions on its impact on team dynamics and employee well-being, involving leadership in the process," she said. "If critical decisions are made in exclusive settings like golf courses without diverse representation, it's imperative to challenge such practices."

Building a team of advocates within the organization can further support efforts to address these challenges effectively.

Johnson admits HR may find it uncomfortable to challenge leadership, especially if they lack direct access to the executive team but says it's essential for progress.

"Even without specialized tools, one-on-one discussions with employees can provide valuable information to advocate for change," she said.

About the Author(s)

Nathan Eddy

Nathan Eddy is a freelance writer for ITProToday and covers various IT trends and topics across wide variety of industries. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, he is also a documentary filmmaker specializing in architecture and urban planning. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany.

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