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Unconscious Bias—Then and Now

One of the truisms about I&D (inclusion and diversity) work, now more commonly referred to as DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), is that a key driver of inequity in work settings is exhibited not so much by conscious affronts, but by unconscious bias that leads to actions and behaviors that can become both pervasive and damaging—to employees and customers.

Yes, there are bigots and sexists everywhere. In most organizations, though, by and large the focus is on the bottom line. As our positioning has always been: Inclusion is a business imperative—it’s an imperative to ensure companies understand and effectively serve increasing diverse markets. As we’ve worked with Fortune 500 companies since 2001, we’ve found that focusing on operational behaviors and institutionalizing behaviors to drive I&D (and now, DEI) is the route to building a sustainable, inclusive culture.

A Decades Old Settlement

It’s a lesson we learned almost two decades ago when we were involved in the consent decree from the Department of Justice as a follow up to lawsuits Denny’s faced from thousands of Black customers who had been disparately treated.

In 1994 Denny’s agreed to pay more than $54 million—at the time the largest settlement in this type of case ever according to the Justice Department. Even today, that’s a lot of money.

The settlement came after an agreement between the Justice Department and Denny’s as part of a consent decree. I was the lead consultant on that project working with the Department of Justice and Denny’s to come up with practical, business-oriented, operational recommendations to address the issues they were facing.

The lawsuit started with how Black customers were treated differently than white customers. White people were seated first, Blacks were asked to pre-pay and were seated in the back of the restaurant. This was at a time when disparate treatment of customers was an issue that had been identified and was getting a lot of play in the media. That’s what drove the lawsuit against Denny’s. It was discriminatory treatment of Blacks. Or was it?

I was there. I know what it was. It was a huge operational failure at the store level. I led the Denny’s Consent Decree training development and learning cascade over a 2.5 year period. At the restaurant level, it was a colossal operational failure. Simple systems for seating people weren’t happening consistently:

  1. What if every manager seating people said, “Is your name on the list?”

  2. What is every host or hostess said, “Who’s next?”

Restaurant operations are all about processes. Establishing, training on, and following simple and consistent processes ensure that all customers get the same level of attention and service. The two simple operational approaches listed above would absolutely have mitigated who was seated first.

It wouldn’t have helped the pre-pay and seating Blacks in the back. Most restaurant patrons understand that they pay after their meal. Being asked to pay in advance, especially in a sit-down setting, is clearly outside of the standard process, suggesting disparate treatment. Being seated in the back of the restaurant, especially if all restaurant patrons seated there are Black and other patrons in more desirable seating are white, is also an obvious affront. While, unlike the process corrections that worked with serving people in the right order, here in addition to emphasizing expectations, it is critical to ensure that these disparate forms of treatment would be subject to some form of disciplinary action.

Actions driven by both unconscious bias and poor processes. Did employees’ unconscious bias cause them to wait on white people before Black people? Perhaps. The fix: putting people’s names on a list as they came in and calling on them in the order they came in. Simple fix. Big impact.

That’s just one example of the approach taken to focus on process while driving out unintended bias—picking apart the processes to create equity.

Denny’s Today: A New Mandate

So it’s against this backdrop that we were interested to read a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Denny’s current CEO, head of DEI and multicultural engagement and VP of learning and development, acknowledging their past but focusing more on what they’re committed to continuing to do in light of a renewed focus on systemic racism and racial justice.

As they point out: “DEI is a long trip because the goal is always improvement and forward progress, not to find a comfortable stopping point. Leaders in this space need to be comfortable consistently critiquing themselves and looking for holes in their strategy or its implementation.”

They’re right. DEI is a process, not a destination. We never truly “arrive.” We’re never “done.” For businesses of all kinds it’s about being constantly vigilant, constantly seeking to understand their markets, ensuring their employees reflect those markets, and driving out unconscious bias.

Today, layered on top of these mandates, following the murder of George Floyd and resulting civil and racial unrest not only around the country, but around the globe, companies are also recognizing a higher order mandate. As Denny’s executives point out: “Employees, customers, partners, and investors expect organizations to make more and faster progress. It’s time to figure out how your organization can play a bigger role in creating a more equal and just society.”

We focused on the problem that caused the lawsuit – operational policies and processes at the restaurant level. Sometimes “operational inclusion” will help mitigate unconscious bias while people are learning.

In closing, kudos to Denny’s for their continued effort 20 years later. I wish them all the best!

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Are you tired of workplace diversity training that does not link to business? Are you tired of tactics that don’t drive business results? InclusionINC has inclusion training solutions and strategic consulting that link inclusion to employee engagement, productivity, innovation and retention, moving inclusion beyond tactics to a critical business strategy.


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