careers

Bias at Work: How to Defuse a Ticking Time Bomb in Your Organization

An interview with the author of the book “Bias Interrupted” reveals hidden signs of bias in the workplace and offers ideas for what to do to help correct it.

“Bruce” is the CEO of a Chicago IT company with more than 60 employees. “Over the summer of 2021, a very bad feeling began to take hold,” he told me in lengthy phone call.

“Suddenly a great lack of trust became apparent (in our workplace). Some of our most gifted people complained of feeling ignored, not valued, not listened to, their ideas stolen by management, and being treated unequally.” The problem, he noted, wasn’t necessarily along racial lines.

“The trial of Officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd seems to have let the steam out of a pressure cooker, and people are openly telling me they feel victims of bias on the job. Our HR department has no idea what to do.

“Do you know of a book on this subject that I can have our managers read, something that will help them identify their own unfair, biased treatment of staff, because I believe we’ve got a real problem.”

Bias – Invisible Until It Isn’t

That phone call could not have come at a better time as I had just finished reading the answer to my reader’s request, Bias Interrupted: Creating Inclusion for Real and for Gooda new book by Joan C. Williams, Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings Law.

Her book made me aware of how we can all be incredibly biased against or for someone or something.  When it happens on the job, there are no good outcomes.

I asked her to outline some of the most commonly found types of bias that are easily identifiable:

1. Prove-It-Again Bias

This is where women and minorities must prove their skills and competence more than white men.

Consequences: It takes longer for women and people of color to be promoted, because they have to provide more evidence of being equally competent — proving themselves repeatedly just to get the same recognition that others receive. Meanwhile, white male employees are more likely than any other group to be judged on their potential — as opposed to real accomplishments.

To counteract this situation, performance evaluations should be based on specific competencies, according to a published standard, with evaluators giving at least three pieces of evidence to back up their rating. 

Also, records should be kept of who is seen as having potential and then matched with their actual accomplishments.

2. Being Forced to ‘Walk the Tightrope’

When navigating the workplace, women and people of color tend to have to watch how they behave closely, “walking the tightrope” to fall within a narrow window of acceptance. This makes office politics, and advancement, more complicated for them.

When we think of accomplished scientists, physicians, lawyers, CEOs, etc. their excellent — authoritative and ambitious — performance is often associated with masculine qualities. That’s often an issue for women, who are expected to be feminine. In trying to find ways of being authoritative and ambitious that are seen as “appropriate,” while minimizing the risk of being perceived as “difficult, aggressive or intimidating,” women walk a tightrope between being “too masculine” and “too feminine.” So the need to “self-edit” is very high.

Meanwhile, people of color can also face assumptions that they will be worker bees, and face pushback for being assertive. What would be seen in a white man as an admirable passion for the business may be seen as “intimidating” in an African-American, “too emotional” in a Latina, or off-putting in an Asian-American (whom white Americans often expect to be passive, research shows).

Consequences:  If women are “too masculine,” they are respected but not liked; if women are “too feminine,” they are liked but not respected. The tightrope is narrowest for Asian-American women, who report the most pressure to behave in feminine ways and the most pushback if they don’t. People of color may find that being deferential is the price of being seen as reasonable — not insisting on the best work from others, or behaving in the kind of assertive ways that are valued in white men.

Add to this the reality that white men are seen as a good match for glamorous career-enhancing assignments, while women and people of color are seen as a good match for support roles.

The first step in counteracting tightrope bias is for organizations to keep track of who gets the glamour work and who gets support roles — and take corrective steps if the allocation is unfair. It’s also important, in every decision-making process, including hiring, performance evaluations, promotions, etc., to keep track of who gets faulted for personality problems, and take corrective steps if it seems to be largely or exclusively women and people of color.

3. Maternal Wall Bias

This is when colleagues view mothers — or pregnant women — as less competent and less committed to their jobs.  

Consequences: Women’s career opportunities wither after they have children and they leave in frustration, which costs businesses enormously.

This is a major problem for women’s career advancement. The solution is for supervisors to not to make assumptions about motherhood and career aspirations. Give moms (and dads) a chance. If someone just returns for maternity leave and she would be the best person for a stretch assignment, say, “I have a great assignment that will really be the next step in your career, but if it’s not a good time just say so and I will check back with you later.”

Organizations should make family leave available equally for mothers and fathers. Gen Z expects this, and the fact is that giving leave to both mothers and fathers helps remove the stigma of taking parental leave, because any leave that is taken exclusively by mothers will be stigmatized more so than if men take it, too.

Additionally, do not favor employees who work on-site while penalizing those who work from home! Research shows this will systematically penalize not only women but also people of color, particularly African Americans, who have shown a preference for remote work. Well-managed, the hybrid workplace will help you achieve your diversity and inclusion goals but, poorly managed, on-site favoritism will undercut inclusion.

4. Racial Stereotyping

Different groups of people of color encounter specific racial stereotypes that can hamper their careers and keep businesses from using their staffs to their full potential. For example, Asian Americans are often stereotyped as good at technical work but lacking in leadership skills.  Latinas are often called “feisty” — which is a way of saying “you are behaving authoritatively, and I am interpreting it as cute.” Black Americans report high levels of isolation and disrespect.

Consequences: Asian Americans may be hired but not advance to leadership. Latinos and black processionals may be treated so disrespectfully that they leave.

The simple answer for these stereotypes is to be conscious of, and consciously override the stereotypes that are so pervasive about people of color in the U.S. An important second step is to insist on civility, since research shows that women and people of color are selectively targeted when incivility is tolerated. Employee resource groups may be particularly important for Black Americans, or any group of employees that is very underrepresented in your workforce.

How Do I Identify and Address the Problem?

Reading Bias Interrupted is a great first step, as it shines a brilliant light into the somber room of bias and prejudice at work.

But there is something else, something so needed, that Professor Williams stands for and that you just can’t miss in her book, and that’s her message of basic, fundamental fairness.

When we can see in ourselves unfair, biased behavior toward others, we will have the power to interrupt it. A good first step is to read this simple two-page document on identifying and interrupting bias in performance evaluations. It includes such sage tips as:

  • Make sure to give everyone — or no one — the benefit of the doubt.
  • If you waive objective rules, do so consistently.
  • Don't insist on likability, modesty or deference from some but not others.
  • Don't make assumptions about what mothers — or fathers — want or are able to do.

Reading it out loud increased the performance evaluations and bonuses of Black men, Black women and white women in an experiment.

That powerful message may influence her law students at Hastings to think less about winning at all costs and more about building a more just, less biased society where being fair to each other is a goal.

About the Author

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.

Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift." 

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