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Waking Up to Unconscious Bias


That’s me in the photo above, engaging with an interactive, virtual reality (VR) installation on the “Check Your Blind Spots” unconscious bias training tour bus. In this VR experience, I’m invited into an encounter between two young black men, a suspicious elderly white neighbor, and a white policeman. The point is to immerse the viewer into an all-too-common situation that is loaded with potential for misunderstanding and conflict (fortunately, nothing violent took place in this instance). The title of this exercise, “Look Into Someone Else’s Reality,” is both a literal description of the VR experience and a larger, metaphorical call-to-consciousness about racial, ethnic, and gender stereotyping and resulting behavior.

This was one of several such interactive offerings designed to examine unconscious bias in everyday life presented in the custom-built bus, a project of the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion initiative. There’s a “Wake Up Call” audio experience that plays conversations between landlords and potential renters; a “Through a Different Lens” gamification quiz; a “Face Yourself, Face Reality” mirror booth; a “Check Yourself” how-diverse-is-your-world evaluation; an interactive LED touch curtain; a testimonial video-capture booth; touch screen media libraries; and an “I Act On” pledge sign-up section. The bus combines cutting-edge tech with hot-button pushing of dinosaur brain emotions to deliver its strong message: “To face unconscious bias, build inclusion, and broaden impact beyond the business community.” This $10 million “bias bus” is on a 100-stop tour to workplaces, universities, and communities across the country, with a goal of reaching 1 million people in person and online. Last week, it was parked outside New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center building where the second annual CEO Closed Door Session was taking place. Over 70 CEOs gathered to discuss the launch of the “Check Your Blind Spots” bus tour, the initiation of the “I Act On” pledge, and the upcoming “Day of Understanding” on December 7th, when nearly 150 CEO Action signatories will host conversations about race, gender, and other key D&I issues at their organizations. Readers of this newsletter know that I have regularly highlighted this coalition. Since its beginning last year, I have considered it to be one of the most effective private-sector efforts addressing the issues of diversity and inclusion. To date, CEO Action for D&I has collected 500+ signatories representing 85 industries and 12 million employees.Supported by research from Cone Communications that shows 78 percent of Americans want companies to address important social justice issues, and driven by the leadership of founder Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman and senior partner at PwC, CEO Action for D&I aims to double its number of signatories to 1,000 CEOs and add 100+ university leaders. The combination of its large scale and its top-down direction mark this coalition as one of the most significant civil rights initiatives of our time. One of the executives attending the meeting, John Miller, president and CEO of Denny’s, told me that the company signed up early on. “I was at an executive leadership conference a couple of years ago, and heard about the initiative there. We didn’t want to miss the opportunity so we sort of invited ourselves in and took the pledge. We were on the first list—which was all Fortune 500 companies except for us. We have 1,700 Denny’s but we’re just a billion dollar company.” Why was Miller so insistent on joining up? “Tim’s leadership was so inspiring. And there’s this: As a CEO, you can’t hide any more.” Denny’s diversity is reflected from top to bottom throughout the organization. Of nine board members, three are women, 50 percent are minority, an African American woman is the board chair, and 70 percent of the workforce is minority. “So, when we joined, we had a number of programs already, but that doesn’t mean they were good enough,” Miller explained. The big winner for Miller in CEO Action is the unconscious bias focus. “How do you get into the deeper nitty gritty? How do you get people comfortable in your environment? How does your culture prevail over these issues that follow us around in our nation? How do you really get inclusion and equality across all ranks? You start by being really committed from the top.” Then the issue is the training. “You can’t find the curriculum--it’s not taught in schools, it’s not in the restaurant industry.” So, Denny’s hired consulting firm Korn Ferry to provide unconscious bias training to the board, its franchisees, and all of its upper management. “They did a great job,” said Miller. “Here’s some things we do: We created work groups so people felt like they had access to places to talk about things; we talk about purpose and values all the time, opening and closing meetings with talk about them; we set goals and targets so people know they have the cover of leadership. And it works: Our company runs better. We’ve won a lot of awards for being a great place to work.” For Miller, D&I issues are straightforward: “You either care about people or you don’t.” That “people” focus is made concrete through monthly support-center community meetings held in the company’s auditorium that feature different groups such as veterans, women, the people with different abilities, and the LGBTQ community. “Everybody’s welcome, we respect everybody,” said Miller. “We bring members of the community on stage to talk about their struggles and challenges. The barriers melt away when people see the human in those who are different. The goal is to get people to look past their tribe and see the human in someone else.” Denny’s is not the first brand that comes to mind among the many brands taking stands—and that’s what makes the company’s commitment, as explained to me by Miller, so impressive. It’s focused on everyday work experiences that arise out of its diverse makeup, and workaday operations that organically raise D&I issues. “It’s a long, slow trail to make progress,” explained Miller, saying the company is always driven by two big goals: “Can we do better next year? Can we do better for the next generation?” Miller makes his down-to-earth descriptions of Denny’s D&I efforts sound downright exciting in their own way. Turning ideas into action at the “little” inflection points such as employee interaction makes Denny’s a model for the many companies that may be hesitant to push forward on difficult issues. That’s exactly what makes the Closed Door Session so valuable, Shannon Schuyler told me. She’s the principal, chief purpose officer, and responsible business leader at PwC, and president of PwC Charitable Foundation. “Getting CEOs together to learn from each other about how to have the difficult conversations is key to making real change,” she said. Being able to share when companies don’t always get it right is important, as is the sharing of best practices about the “…small things that make possible the bigger, more thoughtful decisions. Watching how CEOs reach out to each other in these meetings is amazing. We’ve now formed seven working groups organized around their interests.” It’s the emphasis on “action” by this CEO-driven coalition that marks it as a dynamic leadership initiative. Find out what members are doing and also how you as an individual can pledge and get in on the action. Stay up-to-date with the most current conversations around corporate responsibility with the Brands Taking Stands newsletter. Image credit: John Howell