Unconscious bias in the workplace: Overcoming DEI barriers through language learning

Pearson Languages
a group of young business people chatting toether

Reading time: 7.5 minutes

Unconscious bias: it's a quiet murmur in the corridors of our workplaces that can grow into a loud echo, shaping decisions and team dynamics in ways that may go unnoticed. In our collective quest for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), recognizing and tackling these biases is not just important—it's essential.

By embarking on this path, we create workplaces where everyone feels valued and heard. If you're an HR professional, a leader, or a diversity consultant, it’s essential to always keep this in mind in every aspect of the workplace. Today, let's explore how language learning can be a valuable ally in breaking down the barriers created by unconscious bias.

Overcoming DEI barriers through language learning
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What is DEI?

DEI—diversity, equity, and inclusion—is a framework for creating fair practices and fostering belongingness within an organization. Diversity is the presence of differences within a given setting, implying that an organization's workforce comprises individuals with various characteristics, such as ethnicity, gender, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and cultural background.

Equity seeks to ensure that all individuals have equal opportunities to develop and succeed, which can mean providing specific support and resources tailored to an individual's circumstances. Inclusion is about creating an environment where all employees feel welcomed and valued for their unique contributions.

These three pillars stand strong when we continuously learn and understand one another—and language learning can be an effective tool to achieve this understanding. Let's start by appreciating the broad range of communication styles that different languages and cultures can bring to our workplace conversations.

The Pew research center examined how people view diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at work. A majority of workers in the United States believe that prioritizing DEI in the workplace is beneficial. However, only a small proportion place significant importance on diversity within their own organization.

Understanding unconscious bias

At its core, unconscious bias refers to the stereotypes that influence our views and actions, often without us even realizing it. These biases can be about anything from race to gender, age, accent, or language proficiency. Left unchecked, they can affect hiring choices, promotions and everyday interactions in the workplace.

Unconscious biases can surreptitiously construct barriers in the workplace, impeding productivity and inclusivity in several critical areas. These biases may lead to preferential treatment during recruitment, favoring candidates who share similarities with the decision-makers rather than those with the best qualifications for the job.

Such biases might also surface in performance evaluations, where the quality of work may be overlooked in favor of subjective perceptions influenced by stereotypes. Beyond hindering individual career progress, unconscious bias can stifle the richness of team collaboration, restricting diverse perspectives that could spark innovation and drive the company forward.

Cultivating awareness and promoting an open, diverse company culture brings us closer to a workplace where everyone's talents are truly recognized and celebrated.

DEI barriers in the workplace

To embrace DEI, it's vital to identify common barriers that can hinder progress.

  • One prevalent obstacle is cultural misunderstandings, which can lead to misinterpretations and unintentionally insensitive behavior.
  • Similarly, language differences can create exclusions, making it challenging for non-fluent speakers to engage or express themselves fully.
  • Stereotyping, based on preconceived notions about certain groups, often compounds these issues.
  • Another significant barrier is accessibility, as individuals with disabilities may find it difficult to navigate a workplace not designed with inclusiveness in mind.

Addressing these barriers starts with education and empathy. Encouraging an atmosphere of continuous learning can foster a more inclusive environment. For instance, language and cross-cultural training can bridge gaps and promote clearer communication. Simple alterations in the work environment and providing assistive technologies can also make a world of difference in creating an accessible workspace.

The role of language in shaping perspectives

Language is a central piece of our identity and plays a pivotal role in how we connect with others. When someone speaks with an accent or uses English as their second language, they may face unintended biases. It can become a barrier to truly inclusive communication.

As we embrace the plethora of languages and dialects that make up the work environment, we can begin to dismantle these silent barriers. Imagine a workspace where the melodic rhythm of a colleague's accent is celebrated, where every linguistic nuance becomes a lesson in diversity. Language learning isn't just about grammar and vocabulary; it's a voyage into different ways of thinking and seeing the world.

Through language, we can cultivate empathy, encouraging us to step into the shoes of others and understand their cultural context. This journey, full of curiosity and understanding, enriches our interactions and lays the foundation for a truly inclusive work environment. Let's equip ourselves with the tools of language to build bridges, not walls, and to foster a workplace culture that's vibrant with the colors of diversity.

Examples of overcoming DEI barriers through language learning

Lunch and learn sessions

Imagine a scenario where team communication is impacted by language differences, impacting collaboration. To overcome this, a company could initiate 'Lunch and Learn' sessions where team members share phrases from their native languages, thereby creating an adherence to inclusivity while fostering team bonding.

This could also include sessions teaching teams about the company jargon or terms, these can be difficult to track for anyone irregardless of language level.

Peer language mentoring

Another example might be addressing biases in perception due to different English language proficiencies. Here, peer-to-peer language mentoring programs empower individuals to support each other's language growth, as well as increase understanding and respect for the effort involved in language learning.

Training and apps

Moreover, encouraging employees to use language-learning apps, workplace training and providing subsidies or time allocations for this purpose, reflects an organizational commitment to DEI.

This not only supports the learning journey but promotes an overarching culture of growth and continuous learning. Read more about creating a culture of learning in the workplace here.

Embracing language learning to enhance DEI

Learning languages can be a win-win situation and is mutually beneficial for both the learner and those around them. Here's how language learning can lay the groundwork for a more unbiased workplace.

Fostering empathy

Learning a new language is a humbling experience. It invites us to make mistakes and learn from them. For fluent speakers, understanding the effort it takes to learn English can foster empathy towards non-fluent colleagues, helping to dismantle negative stereotypes associated with language proficiency.

Building bridges

Encourage language exchange or 'tandem' programs within your workplace. It's a fantastic way to grow mutual respect, develop relationships and provide a space where everyone's voice can be appreciated, understood and celebrated.

Encouraging inclusivity

When teams see their leaders and peers making an effort to understand and speak a new language, it sends a powerful message: 'We value you, and we want to actively engage with you.' This shared experience can boost a sense of belonging and inclusivity.

Expanding worldviews

As we learn new languages, we're invited into new worlds, cultures and ways of thinking. This expanded viewpoint can directly counter narrow stereotypes and contribute to a more holistic understanding of each other.

Practical steps forward

So, how can you put these insights into action? Here are but a few examples:

  • Provide access to training and tools: offer language learning resources as part of your organization's personal development tools.
  • Celebrate progress: organize events where colleagues can share their learning experiences and cultural stories. It's as much about progress as it is about perfection.
  • Inclusion by design: draft policies that promote the use of clear and inclusive language, making it easier for everyone to engage regardless of their language background.

In solidarity, we can make strides toward an environment where each individual—no matter their language—feels integral to the fabric of the organization.

What other benefits can organizations realize from better inclusion and diversity?

Enhanced innovation and creativity

Organizations that encourage a variety of perspectives naturally create an excellent environment for creative thinking. Individuals from diverse backgrounds bring their unique experiences and ideas to the table, fostering a culture where 'thinking outside the box' is not just a slogan, but a daily reality. Language and cultural diversity act as catalysts for this process, unleashing the collective genius that lies within diverse teams.

Unlock new opportunities

Understanding and embracing diversity isn't just the right thing to do—it's smart business. Companies that reflect the multicultural tapestry of the markets they serve are better positioned to understand and anticipate the needs of their customers. Language learning, in particular, allows employees to communicate directly with a wider customer base, forming stronger connections and building trust in new and existing markets.

Attracting and retaining talent

In today's job market, the best talent seeks more than just good pay—they look for workplaces that respect and value diversity. By promoting language learning and inclusion, organizations demonstrate their commitment to an environment where everyone, regardless of their background, can thrive. This makes them more attractive to prospective employees and can greatly increase staff retention by creating a sense of community and belonging.

Better decision-making

When a whole range of perspectives is woven into the decision-making process, organizations benefit from a more well-rounded analysis of the challenges they face. Language and cultural diversity can help prevent echo chambers, where similar thinking leads to biases and blind spots. Instead, diversity can provide a wide-angle lens through which a business can view its strategy and operations, leading to more informed—and often more successful—decision-making.

Increased competitiveness

Finally, the blend of rich insights and the ability to connect with customers in meaningful ways puts organizations a step ahead of their competition. It isn't simply about being representative of the world at large; it's about leveraging that representation to propel the company forward with agility and foresight. As our world grows more interconnected, companies that are adept at working across cultural and language divides are likely to stay ahead of the curve, ready to adapt to the changing tides of global commerce.

Organizations galvanized by inclusion and diversity aren't just better places to work; they're more dynamic, more resilient, and more connected to the communities they serve. Each step towards a more inclusive workplace is a step towards a brighter, more innovative, and more inclusive future for all.

Final thoughts

To bring the principles of DEI with language learning into the very heart of your organization, consider our range of language solutions for work. Our tools and resources are meticulously crafted to enhance language learning and effective communication across all levels of your company.

It's time to demonstrate your commitment to an environment where every colleague has the tools they need to connect, flourish and feel valued. Reach out today and be the catalyst for lasting change in your workplace. Because when we grow together, we succeed together. Learn more about Pearson's language solutions for work and encourage employees to improve their language skills with our language learning app Mondly by Pearson

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    One example is a formal email to a client:

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