Designing a Bias-free Organization

The subject of race relations and social justice is again a central debate. But this current crisis is different – those that are privileged are being asked to do more than just ‘get to know’ or ‘learn’ more. They are being asked to do more.

The much-admired poet James Baldwin once said that people could cry much easier than they can change. Tacit support or soft social media activism are not enough. This crisis is calling for behavioral change – not just words.

Black Lives Matter is now an international movement that has also underscored the need for a serious dialogue on the topic of discrimination in the workplace.

All this while companies continue to spend big money on D&I initiatives in the United States- about $8 billion annually by some estimates. Much of this is being spent on pushing leaders and managers into classrooms for Unconscious Bias training. But leaders need to do more than just attend these training programs. Leaders must become adept at deciphering these biases and daring to highlight these biases when they damage the spirit of inclusion in an organization.

They must make the process of dealing with bias an essential element of the design of their organizations – not just a ‘unit’ housed under their Human Resources department. Leaders would do well to adopt a design thinking mindset to de-bias their organizations.

Promote – and if needed, enforce the right behaviors

Corporate America has reacted to the BLM movement as many do in response to such an event – they have gone into crisis prevention mode. The default option is to push leaders and managers into unconscious bias training – as was the case with Starbucks in 2018. The public relations machinery also cranks into action – delivering the company’s position and reputation as a company that cares for all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. But leaders must be made accountable for more than just ad-hoc D&I initiatives or hollow promises of change. The demands of corporate leadership must be greater. Leaders must be required to demonstrate specific behavior that shows they are committed not only to bias awareness but to bias avoidance and mitigation in the long term – and not reactively, as in the case of the current events.

For instance, the in-group or the affinity bias results in leaders favoring employees who are like them – in race, gender, or background. Diversity programs try to enhance representation at all levels and across all roles – but the reality is starkly different. For instance, a McKinsey survey of 279 companies showed that for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 60 Black women are promoted – that incidentally is lower than Asian women (80) and Latino women (81). Just having a diversity program to encourage representation is not enough.

There needs to be a transparent view of how leaders are selecting for talent – and a more rigorous set of consequences if leadership behaviors are seen to show otherwise. Objective talent selection and equal promotion of talent must be specifically designed as a leadership expectation – or a universal competency. A set of competencies focused on inclusion must go beyond simplistic unconscious bias training. They must require leaders to behave differently, to make different decisions, and alter actions that might be damaging to others or cause others psychological pain.

Research studies have consistently shown that diverse teams are more productive and high performing. Then, why shouldn’t inclusion behaviors be a strategic leadership competency? – a requirement for leaders to have cognizance of particular biases and there ability to help mitigate them. Also, it will be essential to ensure that there is zero-tolerance for those ‘bad apples’ who consistently under-deliver on these expectations.

Go beyond a superficial understanding of others

Many organizations are waking up to the reality of an increasingly diverse, global workforce. By 2025 millennials will make 75% of the workforce – and 44% of them identify themselves as non-Caucasian. The future workplace will be even more multi-hued – by 2044, many groups formerly seen as “minorities” will reach majority status. D&I strategies that some companies might deem as adequate today will fall woefully short in the future.

Companies must design for this impending change. And it starts with leadership. Most leaders would identify themselves as balanced and fair – even unbiased. Many show their awareness and familiarity with other cultures by participating in cultural events – partaking ethnic foods or wearing ethnic clothes. Great intentions that are worthy of appreciation. But food or clothes are such a small microcosm to some cultures. Leaders must work harder to know different cultures or backgrounds – and they need to show a genuine appreciation for an experience that might be different from theirs. They must be interested and curious, to want to learn from the life experiences of others. And then to apply some of that understanding in how they individualize their approach towards those different from them.

A great starting point is to ask the right questions. For instance, instead of asking what it is like being a Black American, Asian, etc., ask what they value the most about their culture, their upbringing, their family heritage, and the experiences they have had. Or instead of wanting to know where people are from, asking them what about their identity makes them most proud.

Getting to know different cultures, viewpoints or beliefs is essential to help mitigate a bias known as the fundamental attribution error – the tendency to over-emphasize personality-based explanations of others’ behavior and underemphasize situational influences on others’ behaviors. Importantly, getting to know the unique journeys people have been on is vital. Leaders must get to know- appreciate things that are different as well as similar things – common ground and common purpose or core values that they share with others – this could be views, beliefs, and opinions on family or society. Even though we are biased in the way we make broad-stroke generalizations about others, we have a lot more in common than we think. Designing an organization where employees can engage with respect and transparency is a significant advantage. Importantly, it’s the right thing to do.

Review your employee experience to root out hidden bias and blind spots

To tackle bias, an organization must also take a hard look at the employee experience. They must intentionally look specifically for biases that sometimes are hidden in plain sight – such as hiring, unfair pay, or reduced developmental opportunities. A Harvard University study found that 70% of hidden biases are directed towards Black Americans. And some biases border on the absurd – a study showed that those who might be 7 inches taller than average – for example, 6 feet versus 5 feet 5 inches – would be expected to earn $5,525 more per year. It is also interesting to note that even some minorities harbor the same level of “bias” as non-minority counterparts. For instance, the in-group bias might also apply to employees who might be minorities, and hence they might provide more significant opportunities to others who are minorities. This level of endemic bias requires a specific redesign strategy that needs to start with a full-scale audit of the employee experience.

Selection – There is strong evidence that ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform their peers. Yet studies regularly show that people from certain ethnic groups are discriminated against. For instance, some studies show that non-white sounding names are less likely to get a callback after an interview. There are some ways to de-bias this – including ensuring that names (or photos) are not required for resumes. But eventually, what is vital is that companies and hiring managers rely manly on a true measure of talent. This strategy should also be applied to gig workers – the more than 53 million Americans are now doing freelance work, equivalent to 34 percent of the entire workforce. Their experience with your organization will become even more critical. And ensuring that gig workers are chosen for their talent and potential contribution rather than their race, gender, or background.

Performance and development – Even after an employee gets chosen objectively; they still must navigate work situations where some of these overt biases hamper their growth and development. They still might struggle to be compensated fairly for their contribution. The specific bias at the root of this is the perception bias – believing something about an entire group of people based on stereotypes and assumptions. This existence of this bias in your performance management, promotion, or development process will mean that some employees might get unfair treatment or a disproportionate number of opportunities compared to others or many others would need to work harder to catch up with others. For instance, a study showed that a black woman must work 226 additional days to earn the average salary of a white man. For talented Black women, this will mean they have to work harder and longer – which perhaps results in higher burnout.

Reviewing organizational policies and systems geared to provide equal development opportunities is only the first step – but an important one. Unconscious bias might exist in a performance review or development program despite the existence of the very processes that are designed to mitigate them. For instance, a recent analysis of performance reviews found that women were more likely to be critiqued on personality traits, men on their work. There are other examples – subtly de-prioritizing learning opportunities or making uninformed and biased comments during a talent review. Performance and development review must be designed with these hidden biases in mind. Many organizations have done this successfully – Google, for instance, has an unbiasing checklist for performance reviews.

Organizations serious about designing an unbiased organization must start in earnest. The world is on the precipice of massive change – with an increasingly diverse workforce and a rapidly globalizing world – despite the many trade and market barriers that have been erected. Evolving the organizational blueprint in response to this change is not just an option – it is a necessity.

But the work requires more than just the redesign of process and systems. It will require heightened awareness from leaders and their commitment to challenging established – yet biased ways of working.

I blog about life, work and the human condition