“Bruce” is CEO of a Chicago IT company with over 60 employees, where “over the summer of 2021, a very bad feeling began to take hold,” he told me in a lengthy phone call.
“Suddenly a great lack of trust became apparent. Some of our most gifted people complained of feeling ignored, not valued, not listened to, their ideas stolen by management, and being treated unequally - and it wasn’t racial.
“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 Good, 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 - Where women and minorities have to prove their skills and competence more than White men.
Consequences: For women and people of color to be promoted takes longer because they have to provide more evidence of being equally competent - proving themselves repeatedly just to get the same recognition that others receive.
White, male employees are more likely than any other group to be judged on their potential -- as opposed to real accomplishments.
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 – Failure to understand how “Walking the Tightrope” makes office politics more complicated for women and people of color.
Consequences: Without finding 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.
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.
If women are “too masculine,” they are respected but not liked; if women are “too feminine,” they are liked but not respected.
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.
3 - Maternal Wall Bias - 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.
Organizations should make family leave available equally for mothers and fathers. Additionally, do not favor employees who work on-site while penalizing those who work from home, especially if they have children!
4 - Racial Stereotyping - Different groups of people of color encounter specific racial stereotypes.
Consequences: Asian Americans will often be hired but not advance to leadership. Latinos and Black processionals will often be treated so disrespectfully that they leave. The solution is to not stereotype but to treat everyone with respect.
Asian Americans are seen as good at technical work but lacking leadership skills. Latinos may be seen as “too emotional” for showing behavior that, in a White man, would likely be seen as a career enhancing passion for the business. Black Americans report high levels of isolation and disrespect.
How do I Identify and address the Problem?
“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 towards others, we will have the power to interrupt it. 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.