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When It Comes To Bias, Awareness Is Key

Training students to recognize challenges they'll both face, and bring, to the workplace.

For almost 50 years, INROADS has worked with forward-thinking organizations to build, maintain and grow a pipeline of diverse talent. We find and develop talented high school and college students from traditionally under-served populations; provide the ongoing exposure, leadership and soft-skill training they need – and might not otherwise get – to be successful in the corporate environment; and place them in internships with companies committed to accelerating the diversification of their organizations and Corporate America overall.

From the beginning, we knew we had to teach students and millennials to recognize and deal with issues stemming from the lack of diversity in the environments they would enter. Over the years, as diversity and policies to protect it increased, we saw the subtle shift from prejudice as practice to bias as behavior. Harder to train interns for, unconscious bias in the workplace was even more important for them to understand. So, we developed and began testing a curriculum to address it – and that’s when the “ah ha” moment occurred.

For all the work we’d done preparing students to deal with the prejudice and bias they would face in the workplace, we had not recognized how much bias they were taking into it. Like most, we assumed one couldn’t be both an unconscious bias object and offender. The key word? Unconscious.

Biases aren’t inherently bad. In nature, they protect us and keep us safe. We all have them. So, when we developed training to help students examine their own biases, we did so based on an understanding of the intersection of people and business.

In individuals, bias stems from two things: what we bring and what we acquire. Two recent studies show infants as young as six months old demonstrate bias for members of their own race and racial bias against those of other races. That instinctive bias – along with the singular, unique characteristics that make each of us who we are, like race, gender and IQ – are the things we bring into the world. The things we acquire are personal values, largely shaped by the adults who care for us, and the personal experience gained just by living and being. In business, individual companies have unique characteristics, shaped by their unique histories, values, missions and stakeholder demands, and those companies are part of a bigger ecosystem – Corporate America.

What millennials bring and acquire shapes their perceptions of Corporate America and the companies in it. What companies and Corporate America do, either confirms or contradicts students’ views. Are diverse students entering a professional space rife with competition and rich with opportunity?  Or a hostile, impenetrable world dominated by people who don’t look like them?

We realized INROADS needed to train diverse millennials and students both to recognize and manage their own biases, and to be proactive and confident in addressing bias when they saw it. Armed with this insight, in partnership with ALS, we developed an unconscious bias curriculum, and trained our first cohort, more than 400 rising college seniors in the summer of 2017.

We believe these students, high potential multicultural new hires, will be able to leverage the knowledge of unconscious bias – theirs and others’ ― to make empowered moves in forming supportive relationships, such as with mentors, coaches and sponsors, relationships key to success in the workplace. And, as they move up, to be better leaders, better able to accelerate diversity and inclusion.

The bottom line is, when it comes to bias, unconscious or conscious, awareness is the key. Awareness allows us to manage our biases in a way that contributes to stronger, more positive relationships at work and where ever we go. 


In this series, CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion signatory CEOs share their dedication to acting for workplace diversity and inclusion to make impactful changes that benefit both business and society. Follow along with #CEOAction and learn more at CEOAction.com.

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