Rex Huppke | We carry biases with us every day, and those can easily manifest themselves in decisions made at work, decisions that help some and hurt others.
People don’t like to talk about their biases.
In fact, the very suggestion that a person has a bias can prompt considerable harrumphing and assertions of pure impartiality.
But let’s not kid ourselves. We carry biases with us every day, and those can easily manifest themselves in decisions made at work, decisions that help some and hurt others.
The longtime response to any form of bias — gender, racial, sexual orientation — has been diversity training. That training helps, certainly, but it doesn’t do much to address what researchers call the “unconscious biases” that linger in our heads.
Joan Williams, director of the Center of WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, makes an argument that sweeping diversity initiatives aren’t nearly as effective as small changes to the ways a company does business. It could be as simple as tweaking the language used in job postings or in performance reviews, and research is showing the outcomes of these tweaks can be significant.
People who review resumes for job candidates show less bias when they don’t know the race or gender of the applicant. Removing terms often perceived as masculine — competitive, assertive, ambitious — from job advertisements can increase the number of women who apply.
In a Harvard Business Review article about what Williams calls “bias interrupters,” the professor wrote of companies:
“One thing I hope they’ll break with is the ‘diversity industrial complex’: the standard approach of making token hires, offering sensitivity training, setting up mentoring networks and introducing other incremental changes that focus on altering women’s behavior to, say, make them better negotiators. When an organization lacks diversity, it’s not the employees who need fixing. It’s the business systems.”
A form of bias interruption at accounting firm Ernst & Young is having a person who understands gender bias read over performance reviews to look for subtle signs of unfair treatment. If potential biases are found — maybe some people are getting higher raises than others despite similar evaluations — the discrepancies are looked into and, if necessary, addressed.
Williams doesn’t encourage heavy-handed tactics, just reasonable approaches that say, “Hey, we might be overlooking some things here, so let’s find a way to avoid it in the future.”
The goal of a bias interrupter, Williams wrote, is to “identify how bias is playing out in real time. And then they short-circuit it.” She has been working with several companies to implement this concept.
Diana Cruz Solash, director of global and Americas diversity and inclusiveness at Ernst & Young, sees the concept as more sensible than just talking about diversity: “That’s why I think we see so much plateauing in the progress we’re making on diversity. It’s not about more programs. What gets hard-wired are those small moments of decisions that are happening on the ground that no program can control.”
One goal is to simply get people to pause before making decisions and honestly evaluate their thinking.
Williams identifies a common unconscious bias as “maternal wall bias,” an underlying assumption that a mother isn’t fully committed to her career. A way to investigate whether this bias exists is to simply look at a female employee’s work assignments before and after a maternity leave.
Has there been a change, perhaps a lessening of responsibilities? Was she on a faster track before motherhood?
Solash said her company has “inclusiveness champions” across different groups and departments.
“That’s someone who has been asked to broadly make sure that in everything that we do we’re embedding diversity and inclusiveness,” she said. “It could be as simple as, ‘Who are (we) going to put onstage at a big town hall meeting?’ If it’s going to be a stage full of white men, an inclusiveness champion would say, ‘OK, time out, how did we end up here? This isn’t necessarily representative of our clients or our workforce.’”
She continued: “It’s one thing to put the idea of diversity out there and have it on our website, have it in our employee publications and in our branding and training. But we know that’s only one side of the equation. The other side is what happens on the ground day to day, giving our people the tools. It’s like being fit. You can conceptually get that eating well and exercising for 15 minutes a day, five days a week is good of you. But unless you’re being vigilant and you’ve got the tools and the commitment, then it’s not going to happen.”
I encourage you to read Williams’ article on the Harvard Business Review’s website and this “Tools for Interrupting Bias in Performance Evaluations” that the Center for WorkLife Law put together.
It’s easy to hear about biases and say, “Sure, I know that, and I’d never judge a co-worker that way.” And that may be true. But the point is that checking ourselves, and remembering that often in the rush of day-to-day work life we’re not conscious of our biases, is an easy and sensible step to take.
Talking about diversity and inclusion is important. But I’d argue that taking concrete steps to cut off unconsciously biased acts before they happen is the more effective approach.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.