It's easy to think that we leave the world outside when we enter the workplace. But our working environment is made up of human beings, after all, and our opinions, biases, and prejudices slip through even the tightest security screens.

Controversial social issues of the past twelve months have forced us to acknowledge and confront our own biases as well as those of our co-workers and employees. Even if we weren't directly affected by the heart-rending hate killings in Charleston, South Carolina, or the subsequent arguments over the removal of the Confederate flag from civic spaces in the state, we couldn't ignore them. Nor could we dismiss the significance of the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage or the uncovering of systemic bias in police relations with African-American communities, as exemplified by the deaths of Eric Garner in New York, Michael Brown in Missouri, and, most recently, Sandra Bland in Texas.

Even as corporations have stepped up to make their views known--think Walmart and Sears' decision to stop selling merchandise depicting the Confederate flag, Apple and Salesforce CEOs' public stand against an Indiana law that could allow companies to deny service to gay people, or how NBC, Macy's, and Univision dropped their business deals with Presidential hopeful Donald Trump in the wake of his comments painting Mexican immigrants as drug lords and rapists--it's worth exploring how the underlying issues seep into the workplace and how they translate into leaders' and employee actions and attitudes.

Management scholar Muriel Maignan Wilkins wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review article that it's impossible to disentangle systemic biases from our everyday interactions at work. Noting that "there is a connection" between the events in Staten Island, Ferguson and North Charleston and corporate policies--whether explicit or tacit--she points out:

After all, it's not like the racial bias that underlies these social events doesn't exist inside corporate walls. It does and executives shouldn't be silent about it. Until corporate leaders ... can honestly own that this bias exists ... intentionally take action to counter that bias, they will continue to perpetuate what is a systemic issue. This will be uncomfortable, but staying comfortable doesn't drive change. Corporate executives are in a prime position to lead the change needed in the workplace by addressing issues of unconscious bias.

How can leaders address institutional racism--the policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor or put a racial group at a disadvantage? How can they know how--and when--to tackle "third rail" issues in the workplace in a way that won't lead to hurt feelings and resentment? What can small businesses that do not have the resources of a big organization do?

Here are three strategies leaders can employ to confront these sensitive but vitally important topics:

  • Start a conversation. Make it "safe" for employees to have facilitated, organized discussions on societal issues that are likely to affect personal and professional behavior at the workplace. For example, leaders can host town halls to discuss current events and their company's response to them. Be alert for any comments that cross discriminatory lines and use them as a "teaching opportunity." This is probably best done in coordination with the company's compliance team to ensure the conversation is productive and non-discriminatory.
  • Raise bias awareness. Although small and mid-sized companies may not have the resources to institute a formal training program, bringing in an expert to discuss bias awareness and provide unconscious bias training is both do-able and affordable. That investment is sure to pay off down the road by making your company an employer of choice.
  • Build an inclusive culture. Companies need to create environments where everyone feels welcome to share their ideas and bring their true selves to work. Our research finds that diversity makes an enormous difference to the bottom line: When teams have one or more members who represent the gender, ethnicity, culture, generation or sexual orientation of the team's target end user, the entire team is as much as 158 percent more likely to understand that target, increasing their likelihood of innovating effectively for that end user.

It's not easy to recognize and overcome hidden bias in your colleagues--or yourself. But the workplace is not an insulated cloister. The better prepared you are to deal with volatile social issues outside the office walls, the more productive and pleasant life will be inside.