The Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the US and anti-racism protests in the Netherlands draw attention to deep-seated problems of police brutality, institutional racism and inequality. They also force us to think about processes and situations where unequal treatment can play a role, such as in the labor market.
According to the Discrimination Figures in 2019 report published in April, compiled at the request of the Ministry of the Interior, the majority of discrimination complaints in the Netherlands are related to experiences in applying for a job and interactions with colleagues. The workplace is therefore a good place to start tackling racism and inequality.
How can companies do that? Business Insider called Gwen van de Pas. She worked for years in the United States as a consultant at management consultancy Bain & Company, came to Bain’s Amsterdam office a year and a half ago and, as vice president, focuses specifically on talent issues.
Last May, our colleagues from Business Insider US named Van de Pas one of the 38 Power Players of Consulting. Part of her job at Bain is to make colleagues more aware of prejudice and ensure that the organization becomes more diverse and inclusive.
We spoke with Van de Pas about her experiences in Silicon Valley, differences between the United States and the Netherlands, Bain’s commitment to social and racial justice, and what to keep in mind when shaping inclusive and diverse HR policies.
You lived and worked in the United States, in Silicon Valley, for twelve years, and you have been back in the Netherlands for a year and a half. How does our country differ from the US when it comes to diversity?
“Diversity is more of a topic in America than here. I’m more exposed to it there. Not that it’s not considered important here, but the topic is more on the surface there. That makes it more comfortable for me to have conversations about it.” I can also give a little more pushback when people say: ‘Racism, that doesn’t exist anymore?'””In the Netherlands you see that people think: ‘I am not a racist, I think everyone is equal, so we don’t talk about it.’ In America there is more awareness that even if you are not a racist, you still have a responsibility.”
Everyone should be aware that we all have a role in the pursuit of racial and social equality. How has working in Silicon Valley influenced your vision of HR?
“What you notice in Silicon Valley is that because of the Googles, Facebooks and LinkedIns there is a very crowded market for talent.In Silicon Valley, you have to work very hard to keep your staff happy.”
But keeping happy goes beyond being a sushi chef. It is also about pursuing social and racial equality in the workplace. Bain & Company came up with “seven commitments” this year to promote this within the company and in surrounding communities.
“The seven commitments have been put forth to show what we are doing right now. Bain had already set up a 10-year pro bono consulting program worth $1 billion, partnering, for example, with organizations like UNHCR or Oxfam.”
“The three most important pillars within that were education, economic development and the environment. Racial and social equality has now been added quite recently as a focus area, for which an additional 100 million dollars has been set aside. There have also been so-called ‘affinity groups’ for a long time. are mentoring and coaching programs focused on, for example, the needs of LGBTQ employees.”
“Because Bain has built a solid foundation, we can take on the difficult conversations more easily. I think it’s difficult as a company if you’ve never paid attention to diversity and inclusiveness, to suddenly say ‘we think this is important’. It’s hard to have the conversation in a way that feels safe and authentic.”
Bain organized a day of study and reflection on Juneteenth, the commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. Did you also do that in the Netherlands on 19 June?
“In the Netherlands we have chosen not to do this on Juneteenth, because that date has less meaning here. We organized a half day on June 24th where we had an open dialogue with people about this subject in a safe way. We talked in small groups about questions such as: Is racism common in the Netherlands? And how does it manifest itself? In the Netherlands there are still people who find it too exciting. You don’t want to force someone to enter into that dialogue if it feels uncomfortable. We urged those employees to use half a day to read up on the subject. We made them a list of books and articles to read or watch a movie.”
White Dutch indeed do not like to talk about micro-aggressions and institutional racism. How do you solve that in an office setting to talk about such an ‘uncomfortable’ subject?
“What we say very clearly in the office is that we need to trust that we all have the right intentions during these conversations.So that we can assume that nothing is said to hurt anyone. Otherwise people will immediately shut down. And I think that’s what often happens in the Netherlands.”
Have you ever experienced that yourself?
“When I first moved to the United States, I watched a movie with a group of friends. I was talking about the nice suit or a nice pair of shoes from one of the actors. Who, my American friends asked. ‘The dark guy’, I said. In Dutch ‘dark’ sounds friendlier than black, I thought. I was completely killed. It was ‘black’ or ‘African American’. That shocked me at the time. You don’t want that stamp, of racism.” When you are confronted about something, you can easily become afraid of saying something wrong. And so keep your mouth shut. But you should not avoid these topics out of fear, otherwise they will remain unspoken.”
If we don’t feel uncomfortable, nothing ever changes.
“Yes, but then that bit of trust is important that someone corrects you with good intentions. And that that person trusts that your intentions were also pure – that you didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
How is it possible that the discussion about racism is conducted much more clearly in America than in the Netherlands?
“I’m not a historian, but I think that in the United States the collective memory around racial issues and slavery is more intense and recent than in the Netherlands. That creates more understanding; that this is the reality and that we need to deal with it.” “I was living in the US when the discussion about Zwarte Piet flared up in the Netherlands. American friends were completely surprised that this was possible in our country. Dutch friends said: ‘That has nothing to do with racism.’ That contrast was very striking.”
“In the Netherlands, something is quickly dismissed as a joke: ‘I’m not a racist, I don’t mean that like that.’ But then it may still be the case that the recipient of that joke does not experience it that way.” “Humor is an important part of the culture in the Netherlands and a way in which we process things. While in America humor is not possible in this area.”
What are the pitfalls for personnel policy in promoting an inclusive workplace and a diverse culture?
“Pitfall number one is not realizing or wanting to believe that you have unconscious biases. A major risk in recruitment and selection, for example, is that people tend to judge others better if they are more like themselves.””Not everyone dares to say : I’m biased. At Bain, we train systematically to recognize those biases and mitigate them where necessary – if they hinder you from making the right decisions.”
Awareness about prejudice is therefore step one.An applicant who went to the same school or who likes the same movies. That bias is dangerous. You give the benefit of the doubt less often than someone who does resemble you.”
“You should try to remain objective. One way to mitigate the similarity bias is to consciously look for similarities with an applicant. You can look at hobbies in the resume to find similarities. If someone also likes cooking, talk there than the first minutes left.”
Some people have names that guarantee they won’t even be invited to a job interview. How does Bain solve that?
“Our recruiting team works with anonymizing CVs. Last name should not matter when inviting, but we know that this is still common in the job market.”
“It works like this for us: you send your resume to Bain. Then it is first anonymized. Two employees then read and assess the resume independently of each other. In this way, we minimize the chance that biases play a role in the selection of candidates. .”
Be aware of prejudices, anonymize CVs and then you are there?
“Certainly not. In addition to anonymizing resumes, we have many other steps in the hiring process that we consciously do to prevent bias from influencing the selection process. We don’t do this just because we believe it’s right. More diversity among employees also leads to better results.”
“It is important that you don’t just look at recruitment, but make sure that inclusivity is part of the company culture. If people don’t feel valued and safe to promote their diversity, the benefits of diversity disappear, and you can even do worse. than with a homogeneous staff, so it is certainly not enough to hire diverse employees.”