If your company is like most, you’re likely struggling with workplace discrimination, even if you don’t know it. Equity gaps remain a pernicious problem in the U.S., particularly for women and people of color, who, on average, earn less and are under-promoted compared to their white or male counterparts. And though federal law has prohibited workplace discrimination for more than fifty years, those gaps don’t appear to be closing anytime soon. The problem, as I explain in recent research, is that the law incentivizes managers and other leaders in the company to address disparities too late in the game.
Compliance measures focus on the biggest personnel decisions a manager makes — who gets the promotion, who gets the biggest bonus — while overlooking all the smaller decisions that affect employee performance towards those metrics over time. Gender-based disparities in sales performance might be traced back to managerial distribution of leads, access to coaching and feedback, or opportunities to get in front of existing clients. Likewise, differences in experience and skill level at the time a promotion is made may have resulted from informal managerial decisions early on about who gets a high-profile assignment, or another chance after a big mistake.
The key to addressing these disparities may be from an unlikely source: social science research on racial bias in school discipline. My colleagues at the University of Oregon, who have spent years studying the small, everyday decisions that produce disparities over time — what they call vulnerable decision points — in schools, found that school leaders tend to discipline black students more than white students for subjective infractions (e.g. disrespect) than objective ones (e.g. fighting). Thus, while fighting may be the more serious event, it is actually the accumulation of disparities in the more frequent, and lower-level incidents that lead to major racial disparities in school discipline.
The key to breaking this disparity, then, both in the classroom and in the workplace, is to eliminate the earliest opportunities for discrimination. Here are some approaches to try:
Work backwards from pay, promotion, and performance criteria. If you already have well-defined criteria, consult with managers to break them into subparts. What are the steps an employee needs to complete to achieve those objectives? What skills, knowledge, and experience do they need? Then figure out which components are most important, and whether all employees have equal access.
Look for on ramps and off ramps in career trajectories. Some professions are path dependent, where early judgments about performance determine access to future opportunities. In those situations, scrutinize opportunity distribution at that initial stage to assess whether everyone has a chance to make it into the fast lane. It’s also worth looking for ramps available to some employees but not others — like whether managers are looking for “superstar” potential, or give stragglers more time to prove themselves.
Try focus groups and case studies. Another source of useful information is employees themselves — and their managers. They may know about important opportunities they received that others may have missed. You may also want to gather data on promising employees whose careers went sideways, through exit interviews, and even past discrimination complaints.
Identify hidden decision-makers. Some employees who distribute scarce opportunities may not even be on your radar. For example, in corporate law firms, mid-level and senior associates can be the primary decision-makers in how work is distributed to junior lawyers. But these lawyers rarely receive management training, and their decision-making isn’t scrutinized.
Reveal hidden decisions. Managers may not even recognize some of their most important decisions as such. A manager might unconsciously decide to take risks on employees who are similar to them or similar to successful employees in the past, without realizing other employees missed out on the chance.
Help employees take charge of their careers. Sometimes, disparities arise — or are exacerbated — because employees don’t know which opportunities are important. A newly minted investment banker who is a first-generation college graduate will need to know what to focus on if she has any hope of competing with someone whose parents were bankers. Rather than expecting new employees to figure it out on their own, provide them with explicit guidance on what they’ll need to accomplish in five or ten years.
Add rigor to subjective decisions. Subjective judgments are the most vulnerable to implicit bias. The same goes for judgments under time pressure, and in ambiguous situations. Encourage managers to adopt their own objective and behavior-based standards for when they will or won’t take risks, excuse bad behavior, or recognize employee potential.
Provide data. When managers make decisions in an ad hoc way, they may not be aware of the cumulative effect of those decisions. If access to new client accounts is turning out to be a barrier to advancement, provide managers with regular reports on who is receiving the new accounts, so they can rebalance going forward.
Offer resources. Sometimes, managers might like to distribute important opportunities more widely, but don’t have the time or energy to do so. This is where HR can help. If employees need training on business development, offer it to everyone who is interested, rather than relying on managers to provide it informally.
Addressing bias in the workplace is like tackling any other complex business challenge — it demands good data, engagement at the ground level, and creative problem solving. Ultimately, by identifying the vulnerable decision points in your personnel systems, you can help all employees achieve their full potential.
Elizabeth Tippett is an Associate Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law. She researches employment practices and business ethics.