Bias/sensitivity work for tumultuous times

By Michelle van Schouwen

As a small business owner, I tended for years to assume that serious work with bias and sensitivity issues was more in the province of big business, which had HR departments, often unattractive histories of issues with the public and employees, and – most of all – the time and money we lacked.

At the same time, while I believe that we were generally well-intentioned, our management, staff and I all made foolish and insensitive moves over the years. Embarrassing examples include:

-A talented young black graphic designer working for us designed many of her client advertising pieces with dark brown backgrounds. One client disliked the color brown in his marketing, and objected. Fair enough. But in my subsequent discussion with the designer, I left her with the impression that the client not liking the brown was also me not liking the brown… and perhaps me not liking the designer’s skin color. (I was mortified to realize this. I also should have prepared better for the discussion. Clients complain about color, typeface, messaging, and everything else you can imagine. It was not about the designer. I apparently didn’t convey this well enough to the designer, and I definitely didn’t hear her well enough, either.)

-An employee who had been struggling with his weight for years was angry that other staff members frequently stated, “I’m starving!” during the day. He complained to them and I heard about it indirectly. I asked the staff to stop using this phrase, but yeah, I privately thought it was silly. It wasn’t silly to the employee. In fact, I was insensitive.

I regret these and other oversights. As I progressed as a business owner, I began work on my own and my staff’s behaviors and on our conscious and unconscious biases. Now, more than ever, such work matters to small businesses.

In any business, we must deal with our own and our staff’s biases.

We must take a role in being fair, sensitive and equitable to our employees, customers, vendors, and public. We must face the fact that even some long-held personal beliefs have NO place in the 2020 workplace. For example: Employers or employees who do not understand or believe in LGBTQ rights must nevertheless respect those rights in relation to company activities. Racist attitudes and biases have no place in your company, either. Sexist and/or demeaning treatment of each other, or our customers or public, must end as well.

How can we get there?

Education and habit are key. I’ve always liked the saying, “When you know better, you do better.” This may be accompanied, in some cases, by you as the anti-bias boss stating, “Our way or the highway.” In other words, your company must have good rules and policies. Employees must adhere to them.

-You may want to start with a discussion with the team. Times are changing, and we want to be on the sunny side of the street. We’re not shaming anyone – many of us come with baggage, but we need to be our best selves. Both conscious and unconscious bias are important issues to understand. You may not be able to change the opinions of your employees, but you can require that they follow your standards.

-Develop a list of anti-bias policies relevant to your business. (How do you treat customers? Who is next in line? Do you make every effort not to favor some customers over others?)

-Engage employees in these nine free online classes on diversity and inclusion.

-If you have a budget, check out these diversity training programs, rated best for 2020.

-ADL, a leading anti-hate organization established in 1913 in response to anti-Semitism, includes in its mission fighting all forms of hate. Its policies for educators regarding reducing bias in communication are relevant for business as well, as are its materials on confronting hate and securing justice for all.

-Consider how you currently hire, train, compensate, and promote. Is your organization a model for equitable treatment of applicants and staff, or are your own biases showing? Admittedly, a small company may have too few employees to truly represent the diversity of the nation or even your region, but are you working toward that goal?

-Remember, we all come from different backgrounds. To me, cussing up a storm feels cathartic. To my evangelical employee, it’s deeply disturbing to hear. So I need to stop. The parent of a child with Downs Syndrome cringes at crude or casual references to learning disabilities. Those of us living with white privilege should not speak as if we know what it’s like for a person of color to be treated as scary, ill-intentioned or “less.” Those of us with money shouldn’t toss around ugly phrases indicating that the poor are lazy, unintelligent or undeserving. Man-splaining has to go, as do hurtful jokes of all kinds.

Appreciate that so many circumstances result from an accident of birth.

It just happens. You may be male, female or otherwise gender identified, and of any race. You may be cisgender, lesbian, gay, or trans. You may be tall or short. You may be living with a disability. Your parents may have been cruel or kind, influencing your self-esteem. You may be born into wealth or social standing, or not. You may have intrinsic intelligence or talent and be more easily able to progress in your job. You may come from a religious background that is popular in the United States, or one that is less so. Understand the concept of accident of birth so that you can be more understanding of differences.

So, what CAN you change? A lot.

You can work on your sensitivity, your understanding and the way you treat others. Develop your awareness of your own biases, then know better, do better and, while you are at it, insist that your employees make the effort to do the same.


Michelle van Schouwen enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See Q5 For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her new work on climate crisis mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship and works with start-ups to support their development.

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