No diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiative can be successful without thoroughly addressing unconscious—or implicit—bias. These are stereotypes or judgments that occur outside a person’s conscious awareness about a group of people. They could be based on myriad characteristics, such as age, perceived gender, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, weight, physical abilities, or disabilities, among others. Ultimately, any perception of a person or their in-group can shape the development of unconscious bias. Examples include having a negative impression of a job candidate because you personally don’t like the last company they worked for, or being resistant to renting to the next 24-year-old applicant after having a bad experience with a previous young resident.
Because these biases are unconscious and based on personal experiences, everyone has them, says Samantha Thornton, CPM, ARM, a community manager with Cortland in Austin, Texas. “The biggest thing about unconscious bias is that we all have it,” says Thornton, a 2021 IREM Diversity & Inclusion Succession Initiative (DISI) leader. “We’ve all had very different experiences that have formed different biases. But once we see that we all have them, we can keep each other in check.”
Pamela Martin, ARM, a property manager for the Residences at Market Square East in Washington D.C., also provides training for unconscious bias and DE&I initiatives with her firm, Transparent Management Company. She says whenever she is asked if this training is really necessary, she points to the 2018 incident at Starbucks when two Black men were arrested for occupying a table while waiting for a friend. Backlash followed, and Starbucks was quick to close all of its company-owned stores for a day to begin unconscious bias training for its employees.
“It’s a slippery slope—how you or your employees treat someone can lead to bad press or a legal situation,” says Martin, an IREM Diversity Advisory Board member. “I can’t imagine that any property management company can afford that type of exposure.”
Adeayomi Adeyemi, CPM, community manager at Hazelview Properties in Winnipeg, Manitoba, says the risks and pitfalls are even greater than can be imagined. “There are ripple effects just by one action of unconscious bias,” he says, noting some of the undesirable effects such as hindered growth, lack of diversity, and opportunity loss.
Thornton adds that this level of reputation damage and bad reviews can be devastating. “It’s a small world,” she says, adding that unconscious bias during the hiring process can lead to passing on great talent. “You’re missing out on great minds and new ways to make more money.”
Nip it in the bud
Anti-bias training is integral, but it is by no means a quick fix. Truly addressing unconscious bias means approaching it when it arises and being proactive with regular education. “You can’t train enough in this area,” Martin says. “You are essentially taking the thought process that someone may have had for most of their life, and you are completely retraining them.”
To continue to reinforce anti-bias measures, she suggests quarterly trainings, which can include sensitivity training, group discussions, PowerPoint presentations, and examples that can help illustrate different unconscious bias scenarios. “I would then have participants sign an agreement that they understood and that they are responsible,” she says.
When an issue of unconscious bias pops up, it’s important to address it immediately and with open dialogue. “You have to nip it in the bud, and call it what it is,” Thornton says. “The more that you dance around it, the easier it is to be misunderstood. Ask, ‘How could we have changed this? How could we do better?’ You need to make them understand that it’s not personal.”
Committees and initiatives can also be a productive way to address unconscious bias. “I adore that my company has a DE&I initiative,” Thornton says. “We can say, ‘This policy seems a little weird. Can we rewrite it?’ And then we do.” Martin says more checks and balances within the hiring and employee review processes could also help eradicate cases of bias.
For companies that don’t feel confident conducting their own trainings, there are a multitude of resources, experts, and training companies that can come in and educate employees. These trainings can give employees the tools needed to take a daily inventory of their own behaviors and biases.
“When a negative thought comes up, ask, ‘Why do I think that?’” she says. “‘Why did I clutch my purse when that person got in the elevator? Why did I hope to get that restaurant server instead of the other?’ It’s all about mental training.” Thornton agrees. “We have to have those questions in the back of our heads until the point that it’s annoying,” she says.
A brighter future
Because such a great deal of confidence is placed in property managers as they oversee homes and businesses, Adeyemi says these professionals have an even greater responsibility to overcome unconscious bias.
“It all starts with us: property managers,” he says. “A lot of trust is placed in us, and executing in fairness starts from the culture in our respective real estate management companies. Unconscious bias is everywhere, but as property managers, we have to be conscious in all of our dealings because of the trust placed in us by the virtue of our noble profession. We, therefore, cannot see anyone as different or, more specifically, ‘preferred’ in our dealings.”
With the many DE&I committees, initiatives, and training opportunities that have been created throughout the past few years, Martin is hopeful that these important conversations will continue. “It’s 2021,” she says. “Everyone has greatness within, and it’s time for us to embrace that and move forward. There is no room for stereotypes and biases.”