Eradicating Bias Demands Company-Wide Strategy and Training

Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff spent several million dollars to eradicate gender-based pay discrepancies at his company; Starbucks spent millions of dollars to close stores and send thousands of US employees to anti-bias training. Yet both companies acknowledge that those steps are not enough. What can executives do to promote a corporate culture that is respectful and fair to all, tolerating—embracing—both a diverse workforce and a diverse clientele?

As women entered the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s and ‘80s, it was common to promote the idea of “gender blindness”—treating everyone alike, “not noticing” their gender. But women who acted like and dressed like men did not get the same benefits, and their efforts often were met with negative social consequences and negative performance reviews.

“The sad truth was that ‘gender blind’ was just blind. We couldn’t teach ourselves to be gender blind any more than we could teach ourselves to be taller,” Joanne Lipman wrote in That’s What She Said. That’s because every human on the planet has unconscious biases—perceptions, associations, and beliefs that we’re not consciously aware of but that shape our behavior.

These biases creep into decisions about who gets interviewed, hired, and promoted. They affect what people are paid and what opportunities they enjoy. Tiny biases can snowball into significant discriminatory effects. A 1 percent bias—a slight difference in performance ratings, for example—will result in differences in promotion that become dramatic over time. In a study of how a fictional group of employees, half men and half women, progressed upward in a company with eight levels of promotion, a 1 percent difference in performance ratings that favored men resulted in a huge discrepancy at the top level: “When sex differences explained but 1 percent of the variance, an estimate that might be dismissed as trivial, only 35 percent of the highest-level positions were filled by women. Thus, relatively small sex bias effects in performance ratings led to substantially lower promotion rates for women, resulting in proportionately fewer women than men at the top levels of the organization,” according to a computer simulation by Richard Martell, David Lane, and Cynthia Emrich. The gender gap is even more pronounced in real-life C-suite demographics, where minorities, as well as women, are severely under-represented.

A strategic approach to eradicating bias

Corporate leaders can combat gender-based and other biases—and discriminatory behaviors that result—by taking a strategic approach. Clear policies, and training for all employees on those policies and the consequences of violating them, is one place to start. Anti-bias training can also be beneficial, if it’s done right. But mandating training—or behavior—is not enough. It’s also likely to engender resistance, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Taking key decisions out of individual managers’ hands can also help. While most people are notoriously poor at identifying their own implicit biases or biased actions, most people recognize biased behavior when they see it in others. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute told NPR that collaboratively making decisions about raises, promotions, or how to handle potentially fraught customer interactions—or asking a team or committee for input—can effectively reduce institutional bias and change the workplace culture.

This is echoed in the four-part strategy that Brian Welle, the director of people analytics at Google, presents in the company’s re:Work initiative. This approach emphasizes specific actions that can reduce opportunities for bias to enter into personnel decisions:

  1. Define and apply concrete criteria for jobs and goals. This means defining success for each role and writing clear job descriptions—then using these to evaluate all applicants and employees for jobs, performance reviews, and promotions. Objective criteria are directly related to job roles and exclude details, like where someone went to school, that could trigger a biased response—excluding state school alums or favoring people who went to the hiring manager’s alma mater, for example. Ensure that all candidates interviewed for a job are asked the same questions, and create rubrics that outline what constitutes poor, average, and desirable responses.
  2. Ambiguous information leads to bias; people use assumptions to fill in missing details. The answer is data: Measure results by collecting data, reviewing the salaries of all employees with the same job title and description and addressing discrepancies, for instance. Collect project-specific data as well as broad company statistics: Welle states that, when team project results are presented to managers, male members of the team tend to be awarded more credit for successes—unless each individual’s contributions are clearly delineated.
  3. Encourage employees to learn to spot subtle messages, including images, language, and behaviors that indicate a bias, in self or others. This might mean noticing things like the assumption that a woman providing medical care is a nurse or, when two colleagues enter a meeting, assuming that the male is the boss and the female is his assistant. Room décor, the wording of job descriptions, even the attire of models in a recruiting ad can trigger unconscious associations, sending subtle messages that a job is more “male” or “female.” At meetings, managers should track who speaks up (and who doesn’t), whether women are interrupted, or if employees take credit for ideas that were initially suggested by a less-assertive colleague. Managers and team members should call out behaviors, like interrupting a speaker, that disrespect women and introverted team members and limit their opportunities to participate.
  4. Hold everyone accountable by asking that they justify decisions about promotions and raises or make those decisions collectively, question first impressions, give and get feedback on key interactions and decisions, and feel empowered to call out biased behavior when they see it—even if the person showing bias is a higher-up. Managers should start by holding themselves accountable, Welle says, and question their own first impressions and snap judgments. One tactic to improve communication clarity is for managers to ask reports to tell them what they’ve heard and understood during one-on-one meetings.

eLearning is a key part of the solution

Focused eLearning and performance support tools, like checklists and rubrics for managers, are essential elements of a de-biasing strategy. To have an impact, training should avoid common mistakes, like targeting only managers or strongly emphasizing legal dos and don’ts. Well-designed training and tools that are offered to employees at all levels can:

  • Explain and reinforce corporate values of respect and inclusiveness
  • Empower employees to recognize and call out biased behaviors
  • Educate employees and managers on the overlap between harassment and discrimination
  • Explain policies and procedures for avoiding and addressing problematic behaviors
  • Ensure that managers follow consistent, objective criteria in selecting job candidates to interview and in evaluating employees’ performance and potential for promotions and raises

Download The eLearning Guild’s white paper Training for Diversity to discover additional strategies for fostering a respectful workplace culture and creating training that increases awareness of implicit biases and helps reduce biased behaviors. 

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