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Leveling the Playing Field

Keeping Your Workforce Equal Can Present Unique Challenges

Implicit bias and unconscious bias can affect virtually any workplace. They are divisive and can be toxic to otherwise great environments. The key to controlling the effects of it lie in being mindful of your actions, thoughts, and biases. Since it is a social construct, implicit bias predominantly threatens districts as an employment practices peril. Here are some tips to protect your district from the unconscious biases that could unwittingly cause claims.

Assess Your Risk

Since we all have implicit bias, it’s important to identify how bias has bled into your HR practices. Take a hard, honest look at yourself and your district. Think about these questions and the red flags they might bring up:

Think back on past employees who showed promise but whose tenure ended badly. What might have saved their career? Where might your biases have played a role?

Look at the results of exit interviews with all previous employees. Are there common complaints or compliments? Are there themes or patterns?

Read online reviews of your workplace on websites like Glassdoor. See if there are any patterns or accusations of unfairness.

Conduct a 360 review in which employees have provided feedback about their job and management anonymously. This information could be the most valuable clue that there are imbalances. Remember, even the appearance or impression of an unfair scenario is problematic.

Mind Your Demographics

Managers are often more likely to place trust in someone similar to themselves. This is also true of people similar to a previously successful employee. Similarly, managers may implicitly distrust people similar to an employee who was not successful. Not only is that unfair to the employee, it’s unfair to the district. It also perpetuates cycles of bias and prejudice that cause harm to everyone.

Ensure Job Roles are Well-Defined

Be ready to answer the questions below for each role. Any tools necessary to accomplish these goals must be available equally to everyone.

  • What does each job look like at every stage?
  • What are the practical goals of each job?
  • What proficiencies does each employee need to meet to have mastery of their role?

Know the Players

While managers have the most hand in this, there are often supervisors or trainers who impact someone’s employment. That means there are another set of implicit biases in play. Make sure that these people have proper training and that a system of checks and balances is set up to ensure fairness.

Control Each Step in the Career Ladder

Identify if there are milestone projects or certifications that build the case for promotions or raises. Ensure that every employee has equal access to those shortcuts. Also ensure that every employee knows about these stepping stones. If someone is unaware that a career-advancing opportunity exists, they can’t ask to be involved. One example is a training exercise that helps a volunteer become a career firefighter. The entire corps of volunteers should be aware of the existence and importance of this opportunity.

Identify the Late Bloomers

Not every employee is a superstar. Some may need additional coaching to grow. Since training is a core function of management, it’s the employer’s responsibility to provide it. It is reasonable for any qualified candidate to expect training that will help them do their job and advance. This late bloomer may turn into an amazing employee with enough training, time, and patience.

Double Check Your Superstars

You might be lucky and have one employee who stands out as a superstar. But be careful. Superstar employees are likely to burn out more quickly or move on to other jobs faster than others. Additionally, take another hard look at what makes you think they are a superstar. It could be your implicit bias in their favor that gives you that impression.

Analyze their performance objectively against their peers and predecessors. If there isn’t a substantial difference in quantifiable outcomes and deliverables, then you may have acted out of bias. Think about how that difference is perceived by others in your organization.

Gift Responsibly

Giving gifts or buying coffee for your employees can be a nice way of building amity with your employees. But it can also lead to trouble. Obviously, if you are buying treats or gifts for an employee, you must do so for all employees fairly. But the content of your gift may also be cause for concern.

For example, if you bought coffee or after-work cocktails for your team, how does that apply to an employee whose religion prohibits the consumption of caffeine or alcohol? If you give a Christmas gift to your employees, are you certain they celebrate Christmas? How might a non-Christian employee feel if they do not contribute to the holiday atmosphere? Think about how other gifts (massages, gift cards, wine, chocolate, leather folios, etc.) might also cause a perception of favoritism to arise in employees who cannot make use of them.

Cash isn’t king in this scenario either. Any gift card or cash given as a gift by an employer to their employee is taxable income. While a cup of coffee is considered de minimis and therefore not taxable by the IRS, a bottle of wine or tickets to a sports game would likely not fall into that category. Rather than cash or gifts, consider a group luncheon to thank everyone for their hard work.

Leave the AI to the Experts

A lot of companies use machine learning and “artificial intelligence” programs to screen applicants. While these tools promise egalitarian application of hiring policies, that hasn’t always bore out to be true.

These tools use algorithms to sort through data in resumes and demographics to find people deemed the ‘right fit.’ Essentially, the programs are being told to find the applicants that ‘look’ the most like the existing workforce. They look for the people who have the same resume keywords, education, and background that fits the mold. This generates what is called an ‘Applicant Tracking Score’ and is used to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit.

Unfortunately that means these programs do not sidestep implicit bias. They perpetuate it. Given the disparity of race and gender in so many industries, the status quo is not the ideal model. Since the programs are using a broken model, they are providing a broken result. In 2018, Amazon stopped using AI recruiting software because it was shown to be strongly biased against women.

In a lawsuit, the district would not be able to blame the software. The district is still liable no matter the selection system its officials chose to use. Even if committed by an AI, this is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

When it comes to HR, the best decisions are made with a minimum of subjective data and a maximum of objective data. Make sure every promotion, hire, censure, or termination can withstand rigor and examination. The deliverables of the employee must be quantifiably different than those of their peers past and present. If you cannot illustrate those things, double check that your decision isn’t predicated by an unconscious bias.

Lastly, if an employee does lodge a complaint of unfair practices, be careful. Treat the situation with the seriousness and respect you’re accused of lacking. That would counter in actions the accusation levied in words.

To win a retaliation case the employee only needs to show that it was more likely than not that your action was reactive. That bar is extremely easy to meet when someone is terminated shortly after filing a complaint.

The Trouble with Training

Since many of us have bias in spite of our firmly held beliefs of equality, it can be hard to unlearn. This has led a lot of companies to find training solutions to this growing problem. Some companies, like Cigna Health, have had a virtual reality anti-bias training visit their offices. In that training, people watched a workplace dramatization play out in VR. They were asked to click a button every time they observed an instance of implicit bias.

In another exercise, people approached a mirror that offered someone else’s appearance as a reflection. In some cases the reflection was that of a Hispanic, a Muslim, or a transgender person. Participants called the exercises eye-opening and said it allowed them to confront their own biases.

Cigna isn’t alone in this. Companies like Starbucks and Sephora have also organized training. But not everyone is on board with workshops like these. Mastercard’s chief inclusion officer, Randall Tucker, refuses to do this kind of training as part of his company’s efforts. He feels that by making diversity training a specific topic, it creates more detractors than advocates.

He told Quartz news, “I don’t believe in having a standalone training that you go to for diversity. If [the training] is about leadership, it’s under the umbrella of your leadership training, so people don’t have to take off their inclusion hat and then put on a leadership hat. It’s the same hat.” In other words, he believes that diversity and inclusion should be built into every training topic rather than into just one required annual training.

He isn’t alone in that feeling. Detractors of compulsory diversity training may be onto something. One study unsuccessfully tried to demonstrate the hypothesis that training followed by a nap would create lasting change in the brain. Another study found that diversity training effects wore off after only a few hours.

The Trouble with Inaction

The questionable effectiveness of conventional training doesn’t mean you shouldn’t act. There were more than 1,300 EEOC complaints in Colorado in 2018. Of those, 307 were about race, 506 about sex, 231 about nationality, 67 about religion, and 83 about color. For Pool members, these types of claims represent millions of dollars in losses over the last decade. Discrimination alone represents more than $300,000 in losses. Since EEOC complaints fall under federal law, the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act doesn’t apply.

If you want to conduct some kind of anti-bias training, here are some tips for how to make sure it is successful. Consider hiring an outside trainer. But be sure the trainer can do the kinds of effective training that avoids the pitfalls that Randall Tucker foresaw. This trainer should come with experience, offer a multi-discipline approach, and be informed about the legal landscape for public entities. Here are a few other tips:

Remember, This Is Real Life

While this article and our other pieces on implicit bias have gone into theoretical territory, bias is far from hypothetical. This impacts people in real ways (financially, emotionally, and professionally) every day.

This isn’t fodder for sociologists. Remind your team that this hurts people in their workplace and their community. This argument could be persuasive against people who feel resistant to this message and feel it isn’t important.

Actions Speak Louder Than PowerPoint

No one wants to be lectured and no one wants to see preachy PowerPoint slides. Instead, try to work diversity and anti-bias messaging into places where it applies. Work it into the messages when talking to supervisors and trainers about their role.

Remind them that their personal feelings about others have no home in the workplace. If you do hold diversity training, make sure it is discussion-heavy and lecture-lite. Since this is a cognitive issue, the battle will be won by engaging your people rather than talking at them. Work with your team to come up with a list of recommendations or actions that could help mitigate this issue and show that the district is invested in minimizing this problem.

Remind Yourself: This Isn’t Okay

While the research shows that everyone harbors some degree of bias, that doesn’t make it acceptable. Living in a diverse culture means that we all must resist our unconscious biases every day. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be kind, thoughtful, and do the right thing.

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