How the Best Bosses Interrupt Bias on Their Teams

Seat Time: 6 min

Joan C. Williams is a professor and the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. Her newest book is “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.” Sky Mihaylo is the policy and research fellow at the Center for WorkLife Law.

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Companies spend millions on anti-bias training each year, but research shows that such programs rarely deliver. How can you make sure your team is including and making the most of diverse voices?


Although bias itself is hard to eliminate, it is not as difficult to interrupt.


In the decades we’ve spent researching and advising people on how to build diverse work groups, we’ve identified ways that managers can counter bias without spending a lot of time on it.


PICKING YOUR PEOPLE


Fairness in hiring is the first step toward achieving diversity. Here are four simple actions that will yield the best candidates by eliminating artificial advantages:


1. INSIST ON A DIVERSE POOL: Make it clear from the outset that you want true diversity. Research shows that the odds of hiring a woman are 79 times as great if at least two women are in the finalist pool, while the odds of hiring a nonwhite candidate are 194 times as great with at least two finalist minority applicants.


2. ESTABLISH OBJECTIVE CRITERIA: Implicit biases around culture fit often lead to homogeneity. Too often it comes down to shared backgrounds and interests that out-groups won’t have. That’s why it’s important to clarify objective criteria for any open role and to rate all applicants using the same rubric.


3. LIMIT REFERRAL HIRING: If your organization is homogeneous, hiring from within or from employees’ social networks will only perpetuate that. Instead, reach out to women and minority groups.


4. STRUCTURE INTERVIEWS WITH SKILLS-BASED QUESTIONS: Ask every person interviewed the same questions and make sure that each question directly relates to the desired knowledge and skills you’ve outlined. Rate the answers immediately — that will allow you to compare candidates fairly and prevent favoritism.


MANAGING DAY-TO-DAY


Even good leaders sometimes fall into bad habits when it comes to the daily management of their teams. Women report doing about 20% more “office housework” on average than their white male counterparts. Meetings are another problem area. Research shows that men are more likely than women to dominate the conversation; women are often interrupted at a higher rate than their male peers are.

Unsure whether this sort of thing is happening on your team? Start tracking assignments and airtime in meetings. Who’s at the table? Who’s doing the talking? If you find a problematic dynamic, here are some ways to change it:


1. SET UP A ROTATION FOR OFFICE HOUSEWORK: When administrative staff is limited, a rotation helps level the playing field and makes it clear that everyone is expected to contribute to office housework. When you ask for volunteers, women and people of color will feel powerful pressure to prove they are “team players” by raising their hands, so don’t.


2. MINDFULLY ASSIGN PEOPLE TO HIGH-VALUE PROJECTS: If you have only a tight circle of people you trust to handle meaningful work, you’re in trouble. Reconsider who is capable of doing what the important jobs require: Chances are someone not on your usual list is. You may need to be more involved with the training in the beginning, but it will serve you well in the end.


3. ACKNOWLEDGE THE IMPORTANCE OF LOWER-PROFILE CONTRIBUTIONS: “Diversity” hires may lag behind their peers because they’re doing extra stuff that doesn’t get them extra credit. Many bosses who say they value diversity don’t actually take it into account when promotion time becomes available. Integrating less visible contributions when evaluating their performance is a simple start.


4. RESPOND TO DOUBLE STANDARDS: Pay close attention to the way people on your team talk about their peers and how they behave in group settings. If a few people are dominating the conversation in a meeting, address it directly. If majority-group members take or are given credit for ideas that women and people of color originally offered, call it out.


5. ASK PEOPLE TO WEIGH IN: Women, people of Asian descent and first-generation professionals frequently tend to hold back their thoughts. Counter this by extending an invitation: “Camilla, you have experience with this — is this the best course of action?”


6. SCHEDULE MEETINGS INCLUSIVELY: Business meetings should take place in the office, not at a golf course. Whenever possible stick to working hours, or you risk putting caregivers and others with a demanding personal life at a disadvantage.


7. EQUALIZE ACCESS PROACTIVELY: Bosses may meet with some employees more regularly than others, but it’s important to make sure this is driven by business demands and team needs rather than by what individuals want or expect. The same may be true of people whose interests you share. If you are routinely accepting “walking meeting” invitations from a team member who is, like you, interested in fitness, you might need to recalibrate to equalize access.


DEVELOPING YOUR TEAM


Your job as a manager is also to encourage the development of each member. That means giving fair performance reviews, equal access to high-potential assignments and pay increases to those who have earned them.


Take these steps to avoid common pitfalls in evaluations and promotions:


1. CLARIFY EVALUATION CRITERIA AND FOCUS ON PERFORMANCE, NOT POTENTIAL: Don’t arrive at a rating without thinking about what predetermined bench marks you’ve used to get there. Any evaluation should include enough data for a third party to understand the justification for the rating.


2. SEPARATE PERFORMANCE FROM POTENTIAL: In-groups tend to be judged on their potential and given the benefit of the doubt, whereas out-groups have to show they’ve nailed it. If your company values potential, it should be assessed separately, with factors clearly outlined for evaluators and employees. Then track whether there’s a pattern as to who has “potential.” If so, try relying on performance alone for everyone or get even more concrete with what you’re measuring.


3. LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD WITH RESPECT TO SELF-PROMOTION: People in out-groups are more likely to refrain from writing effective self-evaluations or defending themselves at review time. Counter that by giving everyone you manage the tools to evaluate their own performance. Be clear that it’s acceptable, and even expected, to advocate for oneself.


4. EXPLAIN HOW TRAINING, PROMOTION AND PAY DECISIONS WILL BE MADE: When it comes to promotions, you should push for transparency on the criteria used. When they are explicit, it’s harder to bend the rules for in-group members.


Organizational change is crucial, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Fortunately, you can begin with all these recommendations today.

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