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Podcast Pit Stop: Stacey Gordon on Recognizing and Overcoming Unconscious Bias

Recognizing and Overcoming Unconscious Bias

In episode 94 of Pit Stops to Podium, we sit down with Stacey Gordon.  Stacey is an accomplished Executive Advisor, Keynote Speaker, Author, and DEI Strategist at Rework Work, with a focus on transforming workplace cultures and reducing bias in global talent management. As a LinkedIn instructor, she offers highly popular online courses on diversity, inclusion, and career development, and her book, "UNBIAS: Addressing Unconscious Bias at Work," sheds light on the state of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in today's professional world.

With a solid educational foundation in MBA and law from Fordham University School of Law, Stacey is well-prepared to lead our discussion on critical workplace issues. We'll explore key topics such as Recognizing and Overcoming Unconscious Bias, the Nature of Unconscious Bias, Navigating Bias versus Discrimination at Work, and the intricacies of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the modern professional landscape.

If you’re ready to learn from one of the best, then buckle up and hold on!


Pitstop Highlights

The Distinction Between Unconscious Bias and Discrimination

Unconscious bias is a quick way for us to categorize other people without having to think about it.  Where it differs from discrimination is that it is a thought, whereas discrimination is an act.  Bias isn't necessarily bad, but the conscious part of our brain needs to stop and evaluate harmful thoughts before they become actions/words.  

Maintaining the Balance Between Appropriate and Inappropriate Communication

The first step is awareness of the fact that we all have biases and that our choices can cause harm to others.  Once you are aware, you can then take action to correct biases and possibly rectify past injustices.    

Fostering Diversity and Inclusivity in Organizations

It's important to work off of objective facts.  When evaluating candidates for a job, it's key to remember to compare each person to the job description and requirements, not to each other.  When you start to stray from measuring candidates to a rubric, personal biases can come into play.  

Connect with Stacey



Full Transcript

Brendan:  Hey everyone, welcome to Pit Stops to Podium, the RevPartners podcast where we talk to execs who have competed and won in taking their companies from high growth to high scale. My name is Brendan Tolleson. I serve as the co-founder and CEO of RevPartners, and I'm delighted to have with me today, Stacey Gordon, for this episode of Pit Stops to Podium.  Welcome, Stacey.

Stacey:  Thank you, thank you, Brendan.

Brendan:  Well, I'm delighted to have you today. We've got a really exciting topic that I know is not only really important, but it also is one that's really relevant to our audiences that are in that scaling phase of an organization. But to introduce Stacey for our audience, Stacey is an executive advisor, a keynote speaker, and an author. And she is at Rework Work. And Stacey, I think that's a fun title, not title, but a name of an organization. So I'd love to give you the opportunity to talk about your business, but also a little bit of the origin story of how you came about with this organization.

Stacey:  Yes, and so, you know, the two things that kind of wrapped up in one. I, you know, I was jokingly saying, in case you haven't noticed, I'm black and I'm female. And so those are two things that, you know, I really can't avoid sometimes people noticing about me. And so that just means that for a lot of my life, there have been things I have dealt with, situations that have been frustrating that you just sort of roll with. You just assume that's how life is supposed to be. And so when I worked as a recruiter, it really sort of smacked me in the face because I noticed I was working as a third party recruiter and a lot of the clients I was working with would treat people, certain people differently, right? When I was working with a woman, I would get these different kinds of requests about what they should and shouldn't be doing. I'd get told how they should dress when they show up, how they should wear their hair. You know, I'm like, I never get this when I'm talking with a guy. If a person had an accent.  I'd get all these extra things. If the person was a person of color, it was like, oh my gosh, we've got all these extra steps and things that I have to go through. And I was like, why is this happening? So I was just really frustrated one day talking with a couple of my teammates. And at the time I was operating under the Gordon Group. I know, very, very creative. And I said, I was just frustrated one day, I was after getting off the phone with a client and I was like, you know, we need to rework the way that we are recruiting, we need to rework, hiring, we need to rework, you know, everything. We just need to rework work. And I was like, oh, that's the perfect name for the company, rework work. So that's really how it came out, just in a moment of frustration dealing with the way that people were recruiting with various folks within corporate America. So for me, I love recruiting. I really enjoyed it because you really get a chance to see how companies operate, what it is that they're doing, the various roles that they are recruiting for. But I had to segue into focusing on how companies were recruiting and the barriers that they were putting up just because of what I had seen from my days in the recruitment industry.

Brendan:  I appreciate you sharing the background. I think it's a really important and relevant conversation for us to be having right now. And I'd love to dive into that, but before we do, we do have a tradition here at Pit Stops to Podium, and that's to get to know our guests outside of work. So we heard a little bit about your passions as it relates to applying it to the workspace, but what does it look like outside of work? What are those family interests and hobbies that you have?

Stacey:  For me, I actually, I love traveling. So I have been spending more and more time really sort of diving in and, you know, I try to make sure that we do at least like one vacation a year, but usually two, I try to do one with the family, with the kids, and then I try to do one with my sister or one solo. And so just, I think being able to get out and travel is really important. I think it also relates to the work that I do, just being open-minded to be able to go other places and meet different people in different cultures.

Brendan:  What's the next trip that you have on the docket?

Stacey:  The next trip is actually Hawai'i. I had never been, so, but I did Dublin just a couple of months ago and that was a sort of semi-work trip, so that was great.

Brendan:  I haven't been to either, so I would love to go to Dublin and my wife and I were supposed to do our anniversary to Hawaii, but that happened to be during COVID and unfortunately it had to get scrapped. So I'm jealous to hear it, but I'm excited for us to eventually get over there. As you and I joked in the prep with three kids under the age of nine, it's hard to do a lot of elaborate trips.

Stacey:  It is, it is very hard. I'm only now able to do mine, do more now because they're older.

Brendan:  Yes. Well, Stacey, let's go, let's dive into the big idea for today. And it's really this idea of recognizing overcoming unconscious bias. And so one of the things that you talked about, even when you thought about Rework Work from a staffing perspective, is just seeing some of those trends of how perception, whether it's from a minority perspective, it just informs or changes the way things are happening, and you talked about, I think there's a conscious and unconscious. Uh, and I think it would be helpful to understand this, like, how would you define unconscious bias for our audience? Just so they have that foundational layers we get into this topic.

Stacey:  Yeah, you know, I think of unconscious bias a really simple way is just that it is a quick way for us to categorize other people without having to think about it. And of course it stems right from way, way back in the, I can't even say way back in the day, right? Stone age, caveman times, right? Where we needed to be able to quickly categorize people to be able to say, is this a threat or not? And so just based on movement, based on, you know, whatever, that that's what we have used. And so that's just a vestige that we have. And if you think about it, there was a lot of assumptions that we make about people just based on how they show up in front of us. And so that is really what our unconscious bias is. And that's really where it stems from.

Brendan:  And then how would you, as we're kind of working through that, so as you just unpack that, how would you differentiate that versus something like discrimination? What are the ways in which you would say, hey, that's unconscious bias versus that's discrimination?

Stacey:  Yeah, a really simple way, again, I'm always a big fan of making things simple, is unconscious bias is the thought, discrimination is the act. So a lot of what we think in our heads, you know, it might not be the nicest thing, it might not be the most accurate thing, but we don't have to say everything that comes out of our mouths, right? Or everything that we think doesn't have to come out of our mouths.  And I think a lot of what we do, we don't realize how much what we say and how we act and how we treat other people is based on assumptions, stereotypes, things like that in our minds that maybe aren't necessarily based in fact. So when it comes out, it then will come out in a discriminatory way. So that's why we say like bias isn't necessarily bad, right? It's just, it's how we're socialized to think. It is again, how we have evolved over time, but the conscious part of our brain has to kind of stop and say, oh wait, before we, you know, open mouth and insert foot, let me think really more carefully and objectively about this decision that I'm going to make or about this thing that I'm going to say or the way that I'm going to treat this person.

Brendan:  Yeah, and I guess what for you is really set, still what you're describing is like unconscious to your point may not, we all have biases and some of those aren't necessarily wrong. It's a reflection of the environment that we've, yeah, the environment. And then you had mentioned the discrimination was the action. And so there's like, hey, what do we do to ensure that we don't go from an unconscious bias to discrimination? And so you talk to the brain being that kind of filter, the conscious part.  Like what have you seen be effective to ensure that there's that bridge, not the bridge, but making sure that you don't cross that, uh, let's call it the chasm of going from appropriate to inappropriate.

Stacey:  Yeah, it's difficult, right? Because you really, it's about being aware. So the first step is awareness. Most people think the first step is you gotta take some kind of action. And it's like, well, you can't take an action when you aren't aware of what you're doing. So we first really have to just create awareness about the problem, right? About the fact that it does exist, about the fact that we all do it and that we all have to own it. And then start identifying it, start seeing it in our spaces.  So if we can just spend some time doing that first and noticing there's a, oh gosh, there's a TED Talk that I always refer to by Kristin Pressner where she talks about how working in HR, she had a man come up to her and ask about his pay. And she said, oh, I'll look into that for you. And then she had a woman come up and ask pretty much the same question like the next day. And she's like, oh, I think you're good, right?  And didn't look into it for her. So then she's like, a couple of days later, she's like, wait a minute, what did I do there? I told the guy, oh yeah, I'm gonna look into that and help you out. And the woman, she didn't. Doesn't seem like that big of a deal. But if you do that every single time, and you don't notice that, you think about how many times you're impacting somebody's pay. And that's just one person, in HR, if you did that once a week for the entire time that you're in HR, you alone have impacted hundreds of people. So that's what we have to start thinking is noticing, oh, I made this different choice for some reason for a different person, why did I do that? And once you can notice that, then you can be like, oh, next time that happens, let me not do that. And if there's a way to rectify what you did previously, she could now go back and say, oh, you know what? I do need to check in to pay for this woman. And she could actually go back and retroactively do something. So you can't always do that, but in some instances you can.

Brendan:  I like the challenge of awareness being the first step not action, because you can't act unless you know what to act on. But so often we were so action oriented that that's where we wanna go. Stacey, I'd love to, you know, we're talking to revenue leaders and oftentimes, at least in my mindset, when we think about unconscious bias and we start talking about diversity, equity, inclusion, it's usually within the context of, like in the four walls of the organization.  I certainly want to talk through that, but I think there's also an element of how it's changed in terms of selling, and more specifically, who you're selling to. And so as we think about the revenue leader, where they sit and as they start to engage with organizations and ultimately the prospects who are people, how does this impact their ability to be successful in outreach? And when you're talking about people that the diversity can only continue to increase, which is a very good thing.  What are some of those tools and things they should be mindful of to ensure that they're not moving into that discrimination with this awareness of, hey, who I'm talking to may not look like me or sound like me or be like me. So how do I engage effectively in those conversations?

Stacey:  You know, I think of a, I don't even know what you would call this, right, little phrase, which is just like, you need to check your facts before you act. So if you think about that for a moment, like before you make a decision, before you decide who you're going to call, like, so you talk about sales, you set you, the first thing you think about is who is going to be most likely to buy from me, right? As soon as you say that you immediately start picturing what this person's gonna look like, right? You create this persona, and then you go and try and find that person. So just in how you create that persona, that is going to affect who you talk to and who you don't. You are in an elevator, and you've got one person on your left side and one person on your right side, and you have a choice of which person you're gonna engage in conversation, because one of them is gonna be more likely to buy from you than the other. What about these people are you gonna look at to make the determination?  You're gonna look at their clothes. You're gonna maybe listen to their speech. You're going to make a lot of determinations about a person and make some pretty wrong assumptions, right? I mean, there are so many instances of wealthy black people going into high-end restaurants or high-end stores and being turned away or not being treated well because there was an assumption that, oh, they don't have the money. They can't afford this $10,000 purse, the $3,000 pair of sneakers. And it's happened to Oprah, right? It's happened to a lot of people who have plenty of money and have then turned around and said, yeah, I was gonna buy from you, but not gonna happen now, right? So based on cues that we are using, and so the question we have to ask is, are the cues that we are using based in fact? And if they're not, how do we start to change and really be more open about the people that we want to be engaging with.

Brendan:  I like that, and say that again, are the cues we're using based off of facts? Uh, that's a really good, it's a good lens, but I was just thinking through that. I'm even thinking through, you know, when we, um, we're a fully distributed team. And when we were hiring, uh, one of the gentlemen that works for our organization lives in Asia. Um, and in the final round of interview, he talked about, Hey, the way that I'm commute, like, do you think that I can be successful despite the way that I'm like communicating my English? Um, and that was an example to me of you know, just like the impression that he had was based on the way that I speak, uh, how is it going to be received by others? Um, and what we told him is, is no, it's, I'm not worried about it. I'm more worried about, are you, do you fit into our culture and are you, do you have the competency to do the job? Um, and he's been promoted and he's done really, really well. Um, but it's a great example or a reminder to me of like those assumptions or those concerns aren't rooted in fact. Um, they're rooted in just the assumptions that we make based off of external things that aren't a reflection on who that person is or their value, worth, or ability.  Well, let's talk a little bit, I think that's a good segue as we get into the people component. So I think that's a good reminder for our revenue leaders as it relates to who you're selling to, but also as I think through how to build their organization. And that gets into the whole DEI. And I don't want you to justify or argue, hey, why is it important? Because I think there's clearly evidence for that. But more so, I think as you were alluding to earlier, sometimes the temptation is you gravitate to people that look or act similar than you. And how do you avoid that bias and make sure that you're creating that diversity within your organization because ultimately when you have that, there's so much benefit to it.

Stacey:  Yeah, I mean, you have to work off of, again, I'm all about objective facts. So when you are hiring, creating a standard rubric and a standard measurement that you're using to review every candidate. And so for example, I know that when we're, what we end up doing when we don't realize we're doing it is we compare candidates to candidates instead of candidates to the job requirements.  And what we have to remember is making sure that we have created standard metrics, standard measurements, standard rubrics that we're using with every single candidate and measuring them against that. And then making the decision versus measuring candidates against other candidates. Because when we do that, that's also one of the one of the ways that we get we fall into some of our old patterns. And so if we can make sure that and a lot of people are going to say, of course our recruitment team has this, we do it. Yeah, but you don't use it, right? You have it, you know you're supposed to. You've got standard questions you're supposed to use. But at the end of the day, if you find yourself saying, well, you know, this person, they seem like they get it. Based on what? Right? What have they factually done in the interview process to make it clear that they actually get it? And it's not just me feeling like they get it because of affinity bias or like-me bias. So those are the things we have to actually take that extra step and really be able to measure. And I'll go as far as saying, like one of the HR women on my team, she always says, would your recruitment process stand up in a court of law? So if you can stand in front of a judge and very clearly say, oh no, Your Honor, I followed this process and I follow it with every single candidate and I have it documented, you're good. If you can't do that, you probably need to go back and rethink.

Brendan:  Yeah, and I think that's a, you know, if I hear the heart or the intent of what you're describing is like, we talk about the unconscious bias and ultimately what we're striving towards is that whole equality as it relates to the fact concept of being measured or judged by your ability to perform the function or duty the organization has versus some other metric that creates, you know, inequity. I think it's probably the best way to think through that. Is that a fair statement?

Stacey:  Absolutely. We use a lot of very arbitrary standards, right? And we love exceptions. So we create the rule, and then we will create the exception. It's like, oh, well, it's okay, because for John, you know, he's been here a long time, and he's not going to get this new process. Okay, well, John needs to get this new process. No exception, right? Because I love to tell people, I say, you know, sometimes your exceptions, they make your rules full. They're like Swiss cheese. They're so full of holes, right?  You can't possibly have a standard when you're constantly creating these exceptions and when you're using these arbitrary measures. And when you do this, oh, it's just a one time. Just this one time, we'll do it this way, and all the others will be fine. But this one, you find yourself doing that, it's usually because you are trying to do something outside of the bounds that you know you shouldn't be doing, but you want to do it anyway.

Brendan:  Yeah, I think that's a good point. And it's one of the, you know, I think especially this younger generation, it's, I'm talking about some people that I've had in the podcast, there's like this, there's this lack of trust because of that perceived, I'm going to use the word perceived here to clarify, or not to caveat it, perceived hypocrisy of, Hey, you're talking about equity, how important equity is. But when I see, when I experience a disconnect from what you are communicating, it naturally creates distrust between employer, employee, or between partners, et cetera. And I know that's been true for me in terms of certain instances where it's like, I'm all for that, but let's play by the rules. And so when that doesn't happen, things just start to, the dominoes start to fall, it comes a very toxic place.  Well, Stacey, I've enjoyed our conversation. I know there's a lot more we could talk about, but I think this would be a great opportunity as I think this is the final question of, you know, if our audience is trying to learn more about whether it's unconscious bias or DEI or ways in which they can engage with you, what's the next step they can take?

Stacey:  So, you know, it's funny, you just said toxic, right? Like toxic workplaces, toxic teams, and that's really what we are about. We realize that DEI is the solution to toxic teams within the workplace. And so we've actually created a course that's called unconscious inclusion. And the goal of that is to take people from unconscious bias to unconscious inclusion. And it's a journey. And part of that is understanding that just having an unconscious bias workshop is not gonna be sufficient, right?  We really have to be doing a lot more. And so we're taking content and real world application and applying it so that people actually have a process to go through. So it's not just a one and done workshop, it's not just a one and done talk. It really is a full process that is helping teams work together to go through a process of really changing the way that they communicate with each other and building trust, right? Psychological safety in workplaces, so.  I thought we had been working on, it was really cool. It's unconscious inclusion. So if you go to, you'll find it. But our main website is And you can Google me, you can find me. It's pretty easy to find me on LinkedIn, on Google. And we were talking a little bit before you asked about whether I'm Stacey Gordon or Stacey A. Gordon. And it's a funny story behind that because when I first started in this work, many, many years ago, I used Stacey A. Gordon, my middle initial, because I was like, there were so many Stacey Gordons, and I wanted to be able to pop up a little higher in the rankings on Google. So I always used my middle initial, and my youngest daughter has been tracking over the years. She's constantly checking to see, you know, like where I rank on Google. And one day, a couple of years ago, she's like, Stacey, she's like, mom, you're number one. She's like, you're number one. You finally beat the puppeteer. And so there's this puppeteer named Stacey Gordon, apparently, who was number one in the Google rankings for many, many years.

Brendan:  That's great. That's great. Well, I love the concept of unconscious inclusion, going from unconscious bias to inclusion. And to your point, it's more of a, it's not just checking something off a box, but it's really transforming the way in which you engage from just going from awareness, but ultimately from decision making and process. And so I really like that concept and I know our audience will and it's gonna be a great opportunity for them to engage with you on LinkedIn or with your organization. So thanks for stopping by for sharing such great insights and practical application for our audience as we wrap up. So thanks so much.

Stacey:  Thank you, I appreciate the invitation.

Brendan:  Thank you.

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