Eradicating Workplace Bias Debt
How organizations can reap compounded improvements to workplace equity and inclusion efforts
Over the course of the past four years tinkering with DEI software, I’ve chatted with hundreds of folks who have either lived the experience of being a minority in tech or are working to improve Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in tech’s workplaces. Across these conversations, there have been two recurring themes; Frustration regarding the persistence of the DEI crisis in tech and the proliferation of organizational DEI efforts that focus singularly on the diversity piece of the puzzle. These key insights have informed my perspective on workplace DEI which is that one of the most significant, but under-addressed hurdles for organizations striving to drive DEI systemically within the workplace is “Bias Debt”.
PS: When I say “bias”, I really mean “unfair bias” as there are fair instances of biases like those related to tenure, location, and performance for example.
What is Workplace Bias Debt?
Workplace bias debt is a concept similar to the “financial debt” that we can accrue in our personal lives when we have bad money habits or the “technical debt” that engineers accrue when they push out sloppy code. Similarly, workplace bias debt accrues when there are unaddressed biases in the workplace. The more instances of biases exist in your organization’s relationship with its talent, the more “bias debt” your organization’s workplace accrues. As long as these instances of unfair bias exist and accrue, it won’t matter how much minority talent you hire each quarter, you will continue to struggle to see compounded improvements to workplace DEI.
Workplace Bias Debt and The Talent Management Lifecycle
There are numerous stages in the talent management lifecycle where bias creeps in and accrues, thereby preventing organizations from seeing compounded improvements to DEI metrics. Across recruiting, compensation, promotions, and turnover, bias can creep in. As such, organizations need to monitor their talent management processes from end to end in order to ensure that there are no biases accruing at any stage of the lifecycle.
Recruiting Bias Debt
The recruiting process is typically the focal point of organizations’ DEI efforts with a particular focus on top-of-funnel efforts. This simplistic approach to DEI of solely focusing on driving minority talent into the recruiting pipeline is particularly harmful as it it can blind organizations to the real systemic issues plaguing their talent management lifecycle. Vanity metrics like the number of minority talent being driven into the funnel does very little to help organizations understand the systemic biases preventing minorities from thriving in the workplace. Now on to how biases can rear its ugly head at the recruiting stage of the talent management process.
In the recruiting process, unfair biases can accrue in a number of ways. At the top of the funnel, some organizations just do not see a considerable amount of minority talent entering into their recruiting pipeline. This could be for a number of reasons including non-inclusive language in job postings, restrictive skillset requirements that deter diverse talent from applying to job postings, or not enough thought being put into where and how job postings are advertised. Midway through the tail end of the funnel, some organizations simply struggle to advance minority talent across their recruiting pipeline. This could be due to unconscious biases from hiring managers that emerge when they review resumes, conduct interviews, or make final hiring decisions. Across the recruiting pipeline, biases can emerge in different forms and organizations need to ensure sure that they understand the role that demographics play as predictors of outcome for applicants at different stages of the recruiting funnel so that they can properly detect these biases, react accordingly, and prevent these biases from accruing.
Compensation Bias Debt
Before we dive into how compensation biases can accrue, it is important for us to address a nuance specific to the topic of compensation biases. In the rare case that an organization has the self-awareness to address compensation biases, they are typically focusing on base salary, effectively ignoring a significant piece of this puzzle; Equity compensation. This is problematic given how valuable equity packages can be to employees in the medium and long-term especially at tech companies. At growing, successful pre-IPO tech companies like Airbnb, Stripe, and Pinterest or increasingly valuable public tech companies listed on the stock market like Facebook, Amazon, and Google, this point could not be more apparent. And so, for companies that care about eradicating biases from employee compensation as a whole, they have to put as much thought into equity packages as they do base salaries in order to thoroughly eradicate biases from this level of their talent management lifecycle.
Now, how do biases creep into the compensation process? This typically happens pre-hire or post-hire. Prior to hiring an employee, biases can creep into compensation through offer letters. The philosophy of salary negotiations is the trojan horse of the pre-hire form of compensation biases. Some new hires negotiate their offer letters and some don’t. This inadvertently leads to disparities in compensation packages that lead to compensation biases accruing and contributing to overall bias debt. While a contentious point, I am of the opinion that salary negotiations as a principle need to be eradicated in order to systemically prevent pre-hire compensation biases especially given the demographics that are typically affected by this particular bias. Unpacking this opinion further would require a separate post on its own so I will end that point there.
Post-hire biases in compensation typically creep in through raises and bonuses. When organizations do not establish standard processes for awarding raises and bonuses, unconscious biases will inadvertently cause disparities in compensation to emerge and accrue. Standardized, metric-based determinants of who gets awarded a raise or bonus need to be established across the organization so that employees who deserve a raise or bonus do not get passed over. Higher levels of accountability also have to be demanded from managers who recommend or decide who gets a raise or bonus. This will ensure that managers understand that they will be held responsible for and need to explain any poor incentive payout decisions before they even sit down with employees for assessments.
Promotion Bias Debt
In the promotions and mobility stage of talent management, bias accrues largely due to the qualitative manner that promotion decisions are typically conducted within most organizations. Because promotions typically include an increased level of compensation, promotions and compensation share a unique relationship that is particularly dangerous when we think about biases accruing as when promotion biases accrue, compensation biases accrue as a result, leading to doubly elevated levels of overall bias debt.
The leading cause of promotion biases is very similar to the cause of the post-hire form of compensation biases in that the qualitative manner these decisions are made is the fundamental reason why biases creep in at these stages of talent management. As such, the method for preventing promotion biases from emerging and accruing is similar to what we discussed in the post-hire compensation bias section. Organizations need to establish standardized, metric-based processes for awarding promotions in a manner that is tied to performance. Managers also need to be held accountable and required to back up promotion recommendations with metrics that support these decisions while offering credible reasons to both the organization and relevant employees as to why those being passed over for promotions are being passed over as well as clear KPIs that would change this decision.
Turnover Bias Debt
At the tail end of the talent management lifecycle, employee turnover, whether voluntary or involuntary, is the final stage of the talent management lifecycle where biases can creep in, accrue, and prevent organizations from reaping sustainable progressions towards their DEI goals. This stage of the talent lifecycle is uniquely important because it can provide valuable signals that point to the existence of biases at other stages of the talent management lifecycle. Whether employees quit or are let go, it is important to use exit surveys at the point of their exit from the organization to capture employee sentiment as this can help organizations understand how the employee feels about the organization. This is particularly insightful as employees are less incentivized to overly filter their true thoughts once they are no longer affiliated with a previous employer and organizations can use this channel to access data points that more accurately represent the experience of their employees’ in the workplace.
So, how does bias creep in and accrue at this stage of the talent management lifecycle? Especially in the case of employees who leave voluntarily, in the case of employee turnover, it is less that bias accrues and more that the demographic distribution of this turnover can be a diagnostic for other biases accruing at other stages of the talent management lifecycle. If there are particular demographic markers that are becoming strong predictors of voluntary employee exits, then this is a very strong signal that at an earlier stage of the talent management lifecycle, employees who fit that demographic marker are being biased against. Whether in recruiting, compensation, or promotions, this is a great ‘check yo self before you wreck yo self’ signal across these stages.
For any organization that cares about creating fair, equitable, and inclusive workplace experiences for their talent, there HAS to be a concerted effort to eradicate biases across their talent management lifecycle. However, you cannot manage what you don’t measure and so any organization that cares about these things needs to go the extra step to ensure that they are not only collecting data points relevant to these things but also consistently and periodically analyzing these data points. This will help to ensure that there are no biases accruing at any stage of the talent lifecycle, and if the data indicates that biases do exist at any stage of your organization’s talent lifecycle, they can employ a targeted DEI strategy to eliminate this bias instead of rolling out broad DEI strategies that don’t necessarily apply to the specific challenges of your organization. The longer this bias debt exists, the harder it will be to eradicate, so start tracking talent-related data relevant to paying off your organization’s bias debt today!