This blog is part of the You Can't Delegate Ethics campaign. The campaign posits that systemic change on the issue of sexual harassment will occur only when good people in power take responsibility for the issue and create workplaces that do not tolerate it.
Bias (and even unconscious bias) is not inherently bad. Rather, it is a tool that we use each day to navigate quickly through our environments and decision making. Each day we make thousands of decisions, and many of them are the product of our unconscious minds at work. We process information rapidly, and are generally not even aware of the decisions we are making – rather, we are a bit on auto-pilot.
WORKPLACE ENVIRONMENTS THAT ARE ALLOWED TO BE BUILT ON AUTO-PILOT OFTEN OVERLOOK SUBTLE INCIVILITIES THAT CAN LAY THE FOUNDATION FOR PERMISSIVE CULTURES
This is especially interesting when you consider the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace. Workplace environments that are allowed to be built on auto-pilot often overlook subtle incivilities that can lay the foundation for permissive cultures.
Take for example a manager who tends to hire people who look and think like them. Are they doing it on purpose, or unconsciously? The manager may truly believe that a candidate is better because they will act like the manager, think like him, and perform like him; and for the manager that is good because the manager likes the way he does things.
That bias doesn’t seem so dangerous on its face, right? You’ve simply selected someone because they are similar to you.
In reality, you’ve allowed implicit bias to drive an important workplace decision. Acting on this kind of unconscious bias means that those who are not like you – different race, religion, gender, age, etc. – are at an unfair disadvantage and are less likely to get hired, promoted or simply heard.
And affinity bias is hurting women in your workplace, as well as creating an imbalance where workplace cultures lean toward permissiveness.
Read more: Top 10 Ethics & Compliance Predictions and Recommendations for 2018
Affinity Bias Associates Women with the Bottom Rung
One of the most prevalent biases is the affinity bias. This describes the human tendency to look more favorably on people like ourselves – people who look, feel and act like ourselves in one way or another. One of the biggest affinities we share is gender. This may not seem like a big deal until we take a deeper look at the breakdown of men and women across different levels of the organization.
Breakdown of Men & Women Across the Organization
Percent of Workforce
46% Women | 54% Men
37% Women | 63% Men
33% Women | 67% Men
29% Women | 71% Men
Senior Vice President
24% Women | 76% Men
19% Women | 81% Men
*Data from Women in the Workplace 2017 | Study performed by LeanIn.org
From the data, we see gender bias is only remotely balanced at the bottom rung of organizations. The disparity grows exponentially as we travel up the organizational hierarchy. This means that people in power often confirm the biases of other people in power, and most of those people are men.
This puts several culture-determining stratus of the workplace in a bias vacuum. These biases may result in nothing more than the request for the only woman in the room to refresh the coffee; however, biases at the upper echelons of the organizations can have a snowball effect as they make their way throughout the workforce.
When unconscious biases are further tied to harmful stereotypes and assumptions about groups of people, they become even more harmful, destructive, and in some cases even illegal. When our actions and words are the product of unchecked biases, we can end up doing some real damage to workplace morale and individual employees. For example, nominating only women to plan the office party, pick-up the breakfast items for a meeting, or take on some other task because it’s something “women are good at” is all too common and must stop.
Read More: You Can't Delegate Ethics on the Issue of Sexual Harassment
Eliminating Harmful Implicit Bias
The most obvious step for eliminating harmful implicit bias is to balance out the workforce across gender and diversity lines. And this is not some philanthropic act. There are plenty of qualified and over-qualified women poised to fill the senior roles for which they are regularly passed over. The hard part is overcoming the biases that burden the hiring, promoting and mentoring processes.
Balancing out the workforce and especially its leadership, is a major undertaking and one that will take time.
So what exactly can an employer do to change the trajectory for employees, managers and their organizations starting immediately?
- Executive leadership must become champions of bias elimination within their organizations
- Start talking about implicit bias – call it out, explain what it is and help people understand how it can result in unacceptable workplace decisions
- Incorporate the concept of implicit bias into your training programs
- Give managers the tools they need to self-check their decisions and help them create a habit of checking their decisions on a regular basis
- Ensure that managers treat employees as individuals (with unique skills, plans, desires, strengths, experiences, etc.)
- Ensure that you are having an ongoing conversation with employees, especially managers. Implicit bias is not something that goes away after one short training or conversation
- Teach your employees (and empower you culture) to hold others accountable when bias may have tainted a decision and encourage conversation
- For those who cannot or will not change, corrective action is a must
As it has been said, you can’t delegate ethics on the issue of sexual harassment. This begins with eliminating harmful unconscious workplace biases. When something is allowed to persist it becomes the norm. And these norms needs to change.