Food for Thoughts

Is Distance Bias the New Barrier for People of Color?

By Paul Lachhu

Distance bias refers to the propensity of people to prefer people or things that are closer rather than farther away. People who are out of sight are more likely to be “out of mind”. The founder of the nonprofit group Black Girls Code relates that they felt a sense of belonging when working in the office, because other people of color connected in many different ways – nods, waves, smiles and conversations. When she began working at home because of the pandemic, however, she felt isolated. A partner at Mckinsey explained that human interactions have given way to virtual meetings in the remote work world, challenging people of color who are hesitant to speak during online meetings.

Many factors related to distance bias threaten to set back some of the progress people of color have made in the corporate world, and unfortunately, organizational leaders are more likely to make decisions without getting their input. The Institute for Corporate Productivity conducted a pulse survey of D&I leaders in 2020 and found that 27% of organizations put their D&I initiatives on hold as a result of the pandemic. 12% said that D&I is less of a consideration when making Human Resources decisions, like workforce reductions, compensation and promotions.

The lack of visibility that comes with working remotely is making it easy for people of color to lose ground, and it is up to corporate leadership to adjust their approaches and ensure they remain included. For example, managers holding online meetings should ensure diverse attendees are given equal opportunities to speak. Managers making talent decisions must be held accountable for including people of color in their people decisions, whether the employees work at home or in the office. Organizational D&I efforts should not be put on hold because the innovation and creativity people bring is more in need than ever before.

In truth, distance bias (like any bias) can only be expressed when it is allowed to be expressed. It can be overcome with awareness and following Talent Management Best Practices that include diverse people. If distance bias exists, it follows that although the Human Resources policies have been so carefully crafted to ensure people of color are not excluded, these policies are likely not being followed.