New Data Reveals The Hard Costs Of Bias And How To Disrupt It
So much of late has come out about unconscious bias in the workplace, with proposed ideas and strategies for how to address it. Yet to date there has been little hard data on the actual hard cost of bias, or solutions that can effectively ‘de-bias” leaders, management approaches, and work cultures.
A recent study from the Center for Talent Innovation seeks to address this issues concretely. Their new study – “Disrupt Bias, Drive Value – finds that perceived bias in the workplace dramatically correlates with behaviors such as employee flight risk and brand sabotage. As recent headlines from Uber and Fox News have shown, this can mean significant costs to companies.
I caught up with Sylvia Ann Hewlett this month to learn more about this new research on unconscious bias and how to implement actual change that will improve work environments and shift cultures to drive more value, success and inclusion.
Ms. Hewlett is an economist and the founding president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit think tank where she chairs a task force focused on fully realizing the new streams of talent in the global marketplace. She is the author of 10 Harvard Business Review articles and 10 critically acclaimed nonfiction books including “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps” and “Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets.”
Kathy Caprino: So much has been published on implicit and unconscious bias. Why did you decide to add your voice?
Sylvia Ann Hewlett: Kathy, it’s true that much has been published on implicit and unconscious bias. Companies are also investing in it—bias busting is an $8 billion business. But all this research and money simply isn’t making enough of a difference. Women and people of color are still underrepresented in leadership positions. We know that across many lines of difference—whether that’s gender, generation, geography, or others—barriers still stand.
At the Center for Talent Innovation, we sought a new approach. First off, we thought perhaps the focus on managers’ unconscious bias wasn’t the best lens. There isn’t any strong data correlating unconscious bias with actual bias in the workplace. So it’s tough to tell how bias actually impacts individuals of diverse backgrounds in their careers. We decided to flip the lens, and do something a little more radical: measure the impact on employees who perceive bias in the workplace , and quantify the costs that hit the bottom-line.
Our hypothesis was that if we found out which employees perceive bias, how they react to it, and the toll this levies on their companies, we’d have a foundation on which to build solutions.
Caprino: What did you uncover in your research–where does bias lurk in companies?
Hewlett: With the help of NORC at the University of Chicago, we fielded a nationally-representative survey of 3,570 college-educated, full-time employees in white-collar professions. We also talked to dozens of employees, HR executives and other talent specialists. We focused our analysis only on employees at large companies.
What we found is that bias creeps into daily assessments of employee potential, and that bias takes a damaging toll. By the time someone’s up for a promotion, a lot has already happened to make them a stronger or weaker candidate. Did they get good assignments? Was their good work praised by senior management? Were their mistakes forgiven?
Caprino: Were there any surprises in your research?
Hewlett: We always encounter some surprises, and this study was no exception. For example, when we examined our sample of employees at large companies by identity group, we found that Asians were more likely to perceive bias than African Americans or Hispanics—all perceived bias at above-average levels, but Asian respondents were most likely. That initially surprised us, but as we conducted interviews and focus groups, we heard from Asians frustrated about being pigeon-holed as “math nerds” or “shy.” Even if they’re seen as good workers, many Asians told us that their superiors don’t recognize their potential for leadership, or make assumptions about their skill strengths.
Caprino: Are there hard costs to bias?
Hewlett: Yes there are. It’s only natural that when employees feel the burn of bias, they downsize their contributions at work—accumulating to a hard hit on company bottom-lines. Employees at large companies who perceive bias are nearly three times as likely (20% vs 7%) to be disengaged at work. That kind of clock-punching is costly. Gallup estimates that active disengagement costs U.S. companies $450 billion to $550 billion per year.
And then there’s retention. Those who perceive bias are more than three times as likely (31% to 10%) to say that they’re planning to leave their current jobs within the year.
Finally, bias appears to sap innovation. Those who perceive bias are 2.6 times more likely (34% to 13%) to say that they’ve withheld ideas and market solutions over the previous six months.
Caprino: As so many researchers have shown, it’s pretty difficult to de-bias people. How do you propose companies try to solve for the problem of bias?
Hewlett: Without a clear map of bias in their organizations, leaders don’t know what kinds of interventions may be effective. Thanks to our data, we do. We analyzed survey responses to see how perceptions of bias vary among employees in different contexts.
For example, we wanted to understand: when employees have sponsors (senior-level advocates who help them advance their careers), are they more or less likely to perceive bias? Indeed, with sponsors, the likelihood of perceiving bias drops 90%.
We also found that when employees have inclusive leaders who create a “speak-up” culture on their teams, they’re 87% less likely to perceive bias. (In prior research, we found six teachable behaviors that managers can implement to create that team culture).
Finally, diversity in senior management correlates with a 64% drop in the likelihood of perceiving bias.
The beauty of these three solutions is that they don’t actually require “de-biasing” leaders. Instead, they offer systematic changes to create environments in which employees are less likely to see bias in decisions made about their potential—and thus, their careers at a given company.
If you want to prioritize which solution—and with which talent cohort—will work best at your company, map out where bias lurks in your ranks. Individual organizations may find that specific groups perceive more or less bias than the employees in our study. And of the three solutions we found, some are more effective for certain groups than for others, so you’ll want to see which groups are most in need of interventions. Then, after implementing the solutions, map again—to update and tweak your approach.
Caprino: Where can individuals start if they want to disrupt bias on their own teams?
Hewlett: Systemic changes are pretty hard to implement at an individual level. But there’s a lot that you can do as a manager, or even as a colleague. I’d suggest working on the six behaviors that will help make you an inclusive leader, which are:
– Ensure all voices get heard
– Make it safe to propose novel ideas
– Give actionable feedback to your team
– Take advice from your team (and implement it)
– Empower decision-making among team members
– Share credit for team success
Also, find opportunities to join affinity networks, go for leadership positions within the network or within your division, and support data-driven approaches to diversity and inclusion at your company. That way, you can encourage your employer to deploy solutions aimed at its specific needs and test the impact of those solutions.
Too often, we approach inclusion as a fuzzy, ephemeral ideal. Given this groundbreaking research and new methodology, we’ve found it doesn’t have to stay that way. We’re now able to prove, with hard data, that disrupting bias isn’t about diminishing tension at work. It drives value at your companies.
To learn more, see the full report at the Center for Talent Innovation.