Moving Beyond Bias in the Workplace

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Moving Beyond Bias in the Workplace

An overview of the Clayman Institute’s latest gender research presented at the Beyond Bias Summit

by JoAnne Wehner and Marcie Bianco on Monday, March 27, 2017 - 3:52pm

Bias in the workplace is pernicious because it operates in ways that people cannot see. Because it is so difficult to identify and diagnose, managers are oftentimes unable to pinpoint whether and how bias manifests in their own workplace. Furthermore, without compelling evidence, those who firmly believe in their organization as a meritocracy can become defensive or resistant to the evidence of bias, such as when they are required to attend unconscious bias training. Indeed, research shows that at best, mandatory unconscious bias training increases defensiveness, and at worst, it increases the biased behaviors that stereotype and discriminate against women and minorities, which effectively hinder their professional advancement.

The Clayman Institute defines bias as an error in decision-making. Most leaders want to make fair assessments of all employees and hire, retain and promote the best, but research shows that stereotypes about categories of people can influence their decision-making. And, both men and women make these errors. 

By identifying common patterns of bias, and identifying strategies to block bias, managers can better recognize, value, and assess the talent that diverse employees bring to the workplace. To accomplish this task, members of the Clayman Institute presented new research at the Beyond Bias Summit on: 1) how to identify and diagnose bias to increase managers’ understanding of how it manifests in their own workplace and teams, and 2) how engage managers in co-designing solutions by redefining and clarifying performance assessment within organizations. 

Researchers at the Institute have identified four mechanisms of bias:

    • a higher bar of competency to achieve the same ranking or evaluation as others at the same level;
    • an extra scrutiny, including undue criticisms of communication style;
    • shifting and ambiguous criteria, as well as vague feedback;
    • and double-standards, whereby demonstrations of competence or authority lead to a “competence penalty” (perceived as being less competent and capable for displaying feminine traits) or “likeability penalty” (perceived as being unlikeable when they behave in dominant or assertive ways that violate gender norms).

These mechanisms of bias are most likely to be found in people processes—where decision-making about talent happens: sourcing, screening, and hiring; performance management, including performance reviews and talent calibration; team interactions, critical assignments, and compensation decisions.

Once patterns of bias are diagnosed in the specific context of an organizational culture, the Institute’s researchers created a five-step model for sustainable change based on a team-based approach as opposed to a focus on the individual employee. Here is where managers play a central role, because they make talent decisions and evaluations every day, and their decisions shape how bias affects organizations. This small-wins, team-based approach to reduce bias in the workplace is intended to prevent the “bias backlash” that occurs when individuals are targeted in unconscious bias training. Research shows that there are several ways that bias backlash stands in the way of organizations that create programs and tools to block bias: diversity and inclusion messages can be perceived as threatening to members of a dominant group, and correlative initiatives can create the false sense that meritocracy has been achieved, which can lead individuals to be more biased.

Clayman Institute data presented during the Beyond Bias Summit proved the efficacy of this small-wins approach in creating change. In her presentation, researcher JoAnne Wehner showed how reducing ambiguity and establishing clearer criteria in the evaluation of talent led to a positive net change for women in evaluations of their leadership skills.

Wehner showcased the case study of a medium-sized tech company located in the southwestern US. Clayman Institute researchers initially started working with the company to diagnose potential bias in their people processes. The company experienced several common problems that inhere the evaluation of talent: a general lack of uniform preparation and processes around calibrations, as well as a lack of consistent and objective criteria applied to all employees. These were introducing gender bias in evaluations. After receiving these findings, company leaders were eager to take more proactive measures to block bias. They asked to collaborate with the Institute’s researchers in order to address these weaknesses in their people processes.

The intervention with this company was built upon the foundational understanding that without clear and objective criteria with which to evaluate talent, bias will remain largely unchecked within an organization’s people processes. Clayman Institute researchers worked alongside company change agents to address these biases through the implementation of a two-part intervention: first, redefining and clarifying the organization’s leadership values, and, second, creating a more consistent and objective process for evaluating talent in calibration meetings. Co-designing with managers is key to the Clayman Institute’s change model. To this end, Institute researchers collaborated with senior leadership and managers through one-on-one interviews designed to include their insights into the redefinition and clarification of their leadership values. Also, leaders  adopted a scorecard that had managers write down and discuss how their direct reports performed against the established and uniform standard, thereby creating an objective and consistent calibration process.   

This intervention showed some initial success with evidence of greater consistency in their evaluation of talent in calibration, as well as more balanced gender rankings of men and women as top performers. While their work is far from done, the company’s commitment to this work has paid off with small and encouraging wins that provide a foundation for long-term sustainable change through a culture of continuous improvement.

Research Associate