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Managing Bias in the “New Normal”

Managing Bias in the “New Normal”

Last month we looked at the various ways in which employees may feel marginalized or not included in the pandemic-era workplace in our article, “Achieving Inclusion in the ‘New Normal’” and discussed ways to continue diversity and inclusion efforts and initiatives.  As states begin to relax “safer at home” orders and employers begin the process of returning employees to the workplace, it is inevitable that the emotional toll of the past several months will also have an impact on inclusion in the workplace. A vast majority of employees across all industries have faced job uncertainty and disruptions, including possible furlough, reduction in pay, a sudden shift to remote work, technological challenges, and financial woes. Some workers have also faced illness themselves or within their circle of family and friends, possibly lost a loved one, and encountered frustrations simply going about their daily lives. Many employees fear for their or others’ health as workplaces re-open. In addition, George Floyd’s recent death at the hands of a police officer has sparked intense national discussion and debate over a myriad of sensitive issues including race relations, economic disparity, and social and criminal justice, which in some instances has led to civil unrest. Given these emotionally-charged times, it is likely our implicit biases might now, more than ever, influence workplace actions. Here are some of the ways bias related to these recent events will likely impact inclusion as workplaces begin to re-open:

  • Biased comments about Chinese-Americans and Asian-Americans: Clearly, managers need to swiftly address any inappropriate workplace comments of this nature, and report these comments to Human Resources. But what about when employees make less overt workplace comments that express frustration over the impact of the “Chinese” virus or contain similar criticism regarding the actions of persons in China? The best practice is for a manager to be empathetic to the underlying frustration driving the commentary, explain why this commentary is problematic, and reinforce the company’s commitment to inclusion. We suggest the manager provide feedback such as, “I understand people are frustrated. We all need to be mindful of how we express that frustration during work discussions and refrain from comments that could be seen as insensitive towards others’ personal characteristics such as ethnicity.”
  • Workplace conversations related to the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed: Likewise, we anticipate in the days ahead employers will experience a significant increase in issues involving insensitive verbal and social media commentary relating to race, socioeconomic status, and political beliefs, which should be addressed pursuant to the organization’s anti-harassment and respectful workplace policies. We also believe it beneficial for a diverse group of thoughtful, approachable organizational leaders to proactively initiate a professional dialogue about these issues with the workforce. We encourage leaders to re-affirm the organization’s commitment to inclusion by providing concrete examples of problematic scenarios and by explaining organizational resources available for employees to obtain assistance with issues.
  • Benevolent bias in the return to work process: Managers may be hesitant to ask employees deemed by the CDC to be at a higher risk of developing severe Covid-19 complications to return to the workplace, such as persons with underlying medical conditions, persons over the age of 65, or pregnant women. Unilaterally excluding persons who fall into one of these categories from the workplace, even for well-intentioned reasons, raises a number of inclusion and EEO issues.[1] The best practice is for the employer to communicate to its workforce as a whole its commitment to re-open in the safest way possible, and to encourage employees to discuss any personal concerns they have about returning to the workplace with Human Resources and their manager.
  • Issues regarding face masks and other preventative measures: Face masks appear to be an emerging “flash point” issue. Employers in geographical areas where face masks are recommended, but not mandatory, have recently encountered employee relations issues based on clashes between “pro” and “anti” mask viewpoints.[2] Best practices suggest employers establish clear company policies on what preventative measures will be required as employees return to the workplace, communicate in specific detail what is required, enforce policies, and let employees know to discuss any concerns about these measures with their managers and/or Human Resources. It is important for managers to recognize that employees likely have strong viewpoints regarding face masks and other preventative measures, and to respond to employee concerns with sensitivity. Managers should also be advised to escalate concerns or requests for accommodation to Human Resources. If the employer learns of employee social media posts critical of the employer’s implementation of preventative measures, it is important to follow company social media policy and consult with legal counsel before taking any action due to the National Labor Relations Act and other concerns.

Now, perhaps more than ever, it is crucial that organizations continue to provide training on what a  respectful environment requires, and address behavior that falls short of company policy expectations. During these challenging times, EPS remains committed to partnering with organizations to proactively address current employee relations issues through interactive virtual group and one-on-one training, and virtual investigations.


[1] What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws, Sections C.5 and G.4, www.eeoc.gov, updated May 7, 2020.

[2] For example, a large law firm made the headlines when it fired an employee who made a “threatening and offensive post” on his personal social media account after he had been denied entry to a local grocery store for his refusal to don a face mask. See, Thompson & Knight Fires Staffer Over ‘Threatening’ Social Media Post, law.com, May 11, 2020. Also, a restaurant chain recently faced harsh criticism on social media when it allegedly initially refused to allow its employees to wear face masks when they returned to work. See, Hillstone Restaurant Group changes mask policy after backlash and lawsuit, Dallas Morning News, May 14, 2020.