In the journey toward creating more inclusive workplaces, it's crucial for leaders to equip their teams with effective tools to acknowledge and address bias. One innovative approach, inspired by the diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm Just Work, involves establishing a unique code word to signal the presence of bias in real time. This strategy fosters an environment of open dialogue and reflection and normalizes the understanding that biases are a common challenge requiring collective effort to overcome.

The Power of a Code Word

The "purple flag" used by the employees at Just Work exemplifies a less intimidating yet equally effective alternative to the traditional "red flag." This innovative approach is crafted to highlight biases as they emerge in meetings and conversations, fostering a space where blame is not assigned nor defensiveness provoked. In embracing a shared vocabulary that resonates with the team's culture—whether it’s a simple "Yo," an amusing meow, or an emoji in digital communications—leaders can actively motivate team members to contribute to a more inclusive environment. For instance, addressing commonly used terms with sexist connotations, such as "Lazy Susan," can serve as a pivotal moment for teams to discuss and adopt alternative language that does not perpetuate stereotypes or biases. By using a code word to signal when such terms are mentioned, the conversation shifts towards understanding and reevaluating our language, emphasizing the importance of thoughtful communication in cultivating an inclusive workplace.

A Three-Step Framework for Addressing Bias

The methodology developed by Just Work co-founders Kim Scott and Trier Bryant provides a comprehensive guide for leaders seeking to implement this approach:

1. Create a Shared Vocabulary

Establishing a common signal to identify bias is the first step. This requires choosing a code word or gesture that resonates with the entire team and ensuring its meaning is understood universally. The goal is to allow for the acknowledgment of bias without derailing the ongoing conversation or meeting. Opting for a lighthearted or informal signal can mitigate the discomfort typically associated with such discussions.

2. Set a Shared Norm

Once the bias is flagged, the response is as important as the identification. The immediate reaction should be one of gratitude, recognizing the courage it takes to highlight bias. Subsequent actions depend on whether the bias is acknowledged or requires further clarification. This stage emphasizes the importance of openness and the willingness to engage in further dialogue, whether immediately or at a later time. Establishing clear norms for these interactions ensures everyone knows how to proceed when a code word is used.

3. Agree to a Shared Commitment

Acknowledging that we all have biases and may unintentionally cause harm is challenging. Therefore, reinforcing the commitment to address and learn from these biases in every interaction is vital. This shared commitment serves as a reminder that the journey towards inclusivity is collective, where mistakes are part of the learning process, and growth is achieved together.

Implementing Your Code Word

For leaders looking to adopt this strategy within their teams, the following steps can guide the implementation process:

  • Engage Your Team: Discuss the concept and its benefits openly, encouraging input on the code word or signal.
  • Define the Process: Clearly outline how the code word will be used and the expected responses, ensuring everyone is on the same page.
  • Practice and Reflect: Regularly revisit the effectiveness of your code word, encouraging feedback and making adjustments as needed.
  • Foster an Atmosphere of Continuous Learning: Emphasize that using a code word is part of a broader commitment to learning, growth, and inclusivity.

Embracing a code word to disrupt bias allows teams to take a significant step towards creating a workplace culture that recognizes the ubiquitous nature of biases and commits to addressing them in a constructive and inclusive manner. Try it out with your team, and let us know how it goes.

Further Exploration

Project Implicit

An online platform offering Implicit Association Tests (IATs) to help individuals uncover their unconscious biases. Understanding these biases is the first step toward addressing them.

Diversity and inclusion
Find new ideas and classic advice for global leaders from the world’s best business and management experts.

A curated collection of articles and papers on best practices, research findings, and strategies for fostering diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

A blueprint for diversity in the workplace | TED Talks
The basics on how to nurture and manage groups of people with different backgrounds and perspectives -- on a micro and macro level. (Supported by American Family Insurance)

A series of inspiring talks from thought leaders on the topics of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, providing diverse perspectives and innovative ideas for creating inclusive environments.

“Accessible and authoritative . . . While we may not have much power to eradicate our own prejudices, we can counteract them. The first step is to turn a hidden bias into a visible one. . . . What if we’re not the magnanimous people we think we are?”—The Washington PostI know my own mind.I am able to assess others in a fair and accurate way.These self-perceptions are challenged by leading psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald as they explore the hidden biases we all carry from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, and nationality.“Blindspot” is the authors’ metaphor for the portion of the mind that houses hidden biases. Writing with simplicity and verve, Banaji and Greenwald question the extent to which our perceptions of social groups—without our awareness or conscious control—shape our likes and dislikes and our judgments about people’s character, abilities, and potential.In Blindspot, the authors reveal hidden biases based on their experience with the Implicit Association Test, a method that has revolutionized the way scientists learn about the human mind and that gives us a glimpse into what lies within the metaphoric blindspot.The title’s “good people” are those of us who strive to align our behavior with our intentions. The aim of Blindspot is to explain the science in plain enough language to help well-intentioned people achieve that alignment. By gaining awareness, we can adapt beliefs and behavior and “outsmart the machine” in our heads so we can be fairer to those around us. Venturing into this book is an invitation to understand our own minds.Brilliant, authoritative, and utterly accessible, Blindspot is a book that will challenge and change readers for years to come.Praise for Blindspot“Conversational . . . easy to read, and best of all, it has the potential, at least, to change the way you think about yourself.”—Leonard Mlodinow, The New York Review of Books “Banaji and Greenwald deserve a major award for writing such a lively and engaging book that conveys an important message: Mental processes that we are not aware of can affect what we think and what we do. Blindspot is one of the most illuminating books ever written on this topic.”—Elizabeth F. Loftus, Ph.D., distinguished professor, University of California, Irvine; past president, Association for Psychological Science; author of Eyewitness Testimony

This book offers a complementary perspective to Project Implicit's work, discussing how hidden biases influence behavior and decision-making.