Many Cultures, One Workplace – Overcoming Unconscious Bias

Many Cultures, One Workplace – Overcoming Unconscious Bias

The workplace is a microcosm of wider society – many cultures, one community.

In the Western world, the baby boomers are ageing and with them a demographic challenge is looming. In New Zealand, as with some of our traditional trading partners, our labour force growth is slowing and our workforce is ageing. There are now more 60‐64 year olds than 15-19 year olds in the workforce. Nearly one in three workers are over 50 and by 2029 it is projected that one in four workers will be aged over 64.

Globally there is increasing competition for skilled labour. Migration as a potential source of skilled labour will become increasingly important and the source of skilled migrants will swing towards countries where English is a second language. Ethnic diversity in NZ will continue to rise.

We are seeing this happening already as reinforced in a recent article in the NZ Herald, ‘Embracing ethnic diversity: Melting-pot reality okay with New Zealanders.’ The challenge for many NZ businesses is how to attract, hire and retain the best new talent available? How do they ensure that their recruitment processes are open and responsive to potentially great staff members and how do they ensure that they are not unwittingly filtering out potential talent from other cultures or closer to home because of gender?

Choosing the best talent available

One way businesses can maximise the opportunity to get the best talent is by developing greater cultural awareness. As part of this process businesses can learn to recognise some of the unconscious assumptions that might be influencing their decisions and adapting their recruitment processes accordingly.

In our experience and observation of businesses looking for new staff, there can be an unspoken and at times, an unrealised inclination by those recruiting new staff to hire people like themselves i.e. people from similar backgrounds and on the face of it with similar values. While getting the right ‘fit’ in recruitment is a key element in staff selection, it should not preclude people from different backgrounds or gender from being seriously considered as prospective candidates or as future colleagues.

International research by institutions such as the University of Arizona, supports the view that businesses benefit from having a well-managed diversity of personnel, cultures and perspectives and that it enhances staff engagement, innovation, customer engagement and productivity.

NZ for many years has been considered as the ‘land of Milk and Honey’, a land of opportunity, but through our work Catalyst Pacific is aware that for many migrants settling into NZ and being accepted is not that easy. Enticed by excellent immigration campaigns, as part of our work we have met a number of migrants from different parts of the globe, who find that Kiwi businesses are reluctant to hire them. They have the qualifications and industry experience but are given the impression or are told that they lack relevant ‘Kiwi’ experience.

In frustration and disillusionment some return back ‘home’ overseas, move to Australia or take jobs where their talent and skills are under-utilised. When this happens, NZ is the poorer for it and much time, energy, money, hopes and dreams have been wasted.

There may be many reasons for this such as unconscious assumptions of a person’s ability based on such obvious things as their name, accent, cultural background, appearance, gender or age. For businesses these assumptions need to be addressed particularly as new candidates entering the NZ labour force with higher education levels are more likely to be new migrants and women.

Recognising unconscious bias

Many decisions business owners make about their businesses are deliberate, well considered and they are fully cognisant of the many factors that are influencing them. But equally at times business owners may not be aware that those same influences might be unconsciously affecting their decision making processes such as when considering someone for promotion or a ‘stretch’ project. Their gender or communication style may not fit a preconceived view of what makes an effective leader at the ‘next level.’

From Catalyst Pacific’s perspective, this is a form of unconscious bias and it can happen to even the most broad-minded and forward thinking business owners. Great candidates may not even make it to the interview stage for promotion or recruitment because of unconscious assumptions and expectations about their background and qualifications, that may under-value the candidates’ potential and ability.

Internationally there is a growing emphasis on diversity and inclusion where the focus is on creating a more inclusive workplace culture with the business benefits this can bring. Part of this process is recognising and understanding unconscious bias. But what is unconscious bias?

For Catalyst Pacific, unconscious bias can be described as an unconscious expression of the cultural lens through which we all view the world. Through their personal lens business owners, assess judge and make the myriad of large and small decisions about their businesses and the people they hire.

All of this is natural and understandable but it can mean that businesses might be missing out on the best people available and consequently the competitive benefits these people may bring to the business.

The good news is that we can make progress and leverage off this insight. By learning more about the different cultural backgrounds and values of the people we might employ and the clients we work with, business owners can improve their competitive advantage. It is when we begin to realise the extent to which our cultural lens and our unconscious biases might be influencing our decisions that we will be more open to seeing the potential of a wider talent pool. If we can begin to recognise and understand our unconscious bias, collectively and individually, we might be able to better leverage the talent and potential of the many cultures in the NZ workplace.

Holona and Trish Lui

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