The Communicator’s Role in Battling Unconscious Bias

Sonia Thompson felt pressured upholding societal standards when she started her career as a Black professional.

During the first months of her initial corporate position, Thompson permed her hair. Later, when she walked into the office sporting an afro, Thompson immediately felt othered. “The stares and looks that I would get..." says Thompson, an inclusive marketing strategist and brand consultant. “I was even pulled aside by a mentor and told to fix my hair and clip it better.”

Instances like these, and a general sense of feeling replaceable, prompted Thompson to leave. She started a marketing company.

It’s not always obvious to companies and organizations where bias has crept into the workplace. On the other hand, it’s clear that Black employees continue to experience it. A McKinsey report, "Race in the Workplace," surveyed nearly 25,000 employees. It found Black Americans feel less culturally represented and protected than their white counterparts.

“Only 21 percent of Black Americans feel their companies recognize the traditions and habits of diverse employees," the survey says. In addition, "Only 20 percent feel [companies] raise awareness of diversity topics, and only 12 percent feel companies allow them to express themselves personally.”

Traditionally Black styles–whether in hair, clothes, makeup or jewelry–often are deemed unprofessional in corporate settings.

And unconscious bias can creep in early, even before candidates land jobs. For instance, Black women who wear natural hair styles face increased bias in job recruitment, a 2020 Duke University School of Business study found. They are regarded as less competent than Black women with straightened hairstyles and white women with straight or curly hairstyles. Moreover, they were less likely to be considered for job interviews.

Can Communicators Help?

Is it on communicators to address such bias?

Thompson thinks so. “Every brand has a responsibility to change harmful narratives,” she says. They should elevate "people with afrocentric features to showcase how diverse Black beauty is and the spaces we are able to inhibit.”

Although she admits bias remains within the corporate sector, Thompson sees improvement. She references protections against discrimination such as The Crown Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hair styles and textures.

DEI Clarity

Says Cat Colella-Graham, founder of Cheer Partners, “To create cultures of belonging for all, it’s important for communicators to ensure [companies] have a clear statement of their [DEI]  commitments.”

Colella-Graham emphasizes communicators' important role in educating employees and managers about cultural nuances.

“Let’s consider that it is against the law to discriminate against protective hairstyles,” she says. “A protective hairstyle includes braids, locks, twists, tight coils or curls, cornrows, Bantu knots, Afros, and head-wraps."

Hair and other forms of expression are important considerations, she says. Address them when training leaders and managers about cultural biases.

Plan and Content

In addition to bias training, she advises communicators build a plan that includes a content calendar. Content should emphasize the company's core tenets and how they provide safety against bias.

Communicators, she says, “should have a credo about commitments employees can count on" while on the job. These should include "equitable career mobility" and the opportunity to bring one's whole self to work.  Also emphasize why this matters.

Working with HR, communicators can offer a train-the-trainer format since managers should lead unconscious bias training of staff. "Managers," she says, "are the most direct communication line to employees.” Training them to facilitate difficult conversations is crucial.

Training about unconscious bias should address all levels of the company, including leaders. “Often leaders don’t know what to say, or how to say it, and worry about getting it wrong,” Colella-Graham says. Should the CEO need additional training, “look across your organization" for others "who may be further along in their journey.”

Andrew Byrd is a media associate at PRNEWS