Can Eliminating Workplace Bias Be as Simple as Interrupting It?

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Can Eliminating Workplace Bias Be as Simple as Interrupting It?

Despite continued diversity efforts from the United States Government and organizations around the country, minorities are still largely underrepresented in the United States workforce.

Workplace bIas

When looking at the statistics presented by “well meaning” companies, the picture is painfully clear. For example, Google reports that 3% of their employees are Hispanic and just 2% are black. Apple’s employees are 55% white and only 2% black, not to mention 70% male. Even LinkedIn, a social platform engineered for people to find jobs and recruit workers, is a poor example of a diverse organization. Globally, their employee base is only 3% Hispanic, and 1% black.

Surprising, right? You’d think these companies, which often represent rapid progress and innovation, would lead by example with a diverse workforce.

An interesting twist to this widespread problem is that the United States population of workers is about to be more diverse than ever. 92 percent of U.S. population growth is currently attributed to ethnic groups. And in the next ten to thirty years, census data says that there will be no ethnic majority in the U.S.

So how can we fix this problem and get ready for the workforce of tomorrow? As Joan C. Williams writes, “When an organization lacks diversity, it’s not the employees who need fixing. It’s the business systems.”

There are many emerging strategies to increase diversity and eliminate bias in organizations. Some are even using big data to tackle the problem. Let’s take a look at one of those strategies known as The Interruption Strategy.

The Interruption Strategy

In her Harvard Business Review article, Hacking Tech’s Diversity Problem, Joan C. Williams introduces a new metric based approach to increasing and retaining diverse employees in organizations, called the “Interruption Strategy.” It aims to break what she calls the “diversity industrial complex”— the common approach of making a few token hires, implementing sensitivity training, creating mentoring programs and other similar changes. This also includes believing that becoming a complete meritocracy will solve the problem.

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So what is the Interruption Strategy? The Interruption Strategy is based on implementing “bias interrupters.” Bias interrupters are things that change the basic business systems in a way that stops a pattern of bias where it begins. As a strategy, bias interrupters are in opposition to cultural change initiatives that tend to rely on conversations and extensive training. Bias interrupters are instead based on metrics.

Example of The Interruption Strategy

Here’s an example pertaining to recruiting women and the gender pay gap: To perform their bias interruption, researchers Andreas Leibbrandt and John A. List used their knowledge of a well-documented phenomenon that women are less likely to negotiate their salaries than men. They posted identical administrative assistant job postings in traditionally male-dominated businesses (NASCAR and basketball franchises for example) with one variation. One posting stated nothing about salary and the other stated “salary negotiable.”   They wanted to test if these simple two words could interrupt this pattern.

It turned out adding “salary negotiable” to the job posting closed the negotiation gap between men and women who applied for the job. Not only that, it closed the pay gap between male and female hires by 45%.

Here are the three steps to take when implementing the Interruption Strategy.

Three Steps for Using the Interruption Strategy

Step 1: Determine Whether There’s a Problem.

Using a focus group, determine if minorities in your organization are facing common discrimination and biases. Are minorities promoted at the same rate? Do they have equal pay to their majority counterparts?

Step 2: Identify Key Metrics

Once you’ve identified a problem you must identify your metrics. Start by taking a look at these four things: how people are hired, how work is assigned, what happens during performance evaluations, and how compensation is determined.

Step 3: Experiment, Measure Success—and Keep Trying

Now that you’ve determined a bias and related key metrics, it’s time to experiment. Come up with a bias interrupter, try it out, and measure the results. If it wasn’t successful, try something else. If it was moderately successful, still try something else.

Example of Using the Interruption Strategy

Let’s walk through a basic example of using the Interruption Strategy.

Scenario: As we know from our statistics above and more, a major bias that minorities face starts from the very beginning—getting the job. You know this common bias and want to see if the problem exists in your organization.

Step 1: Determine whether there’s a problem. To determine whether or not there is a problem with your company with hiring fewer minorities, you run an organization-wide demographic report. There you see that 70% of the employees at your organization are white. With that statistic, you’ve indeed determined that there is a problem.

Step 2: Identify Key Metrics. With this problem as your lens, you decide to take a look at the hiring process as a whole. What you find is that African Americans and Hispanics are interviewed at a much lower rate than whites. How can minorities get hired if they can’t even get an interview? The number of minorities interviewed as part of the hiring process is your metric.

Step 3: Experiment, Measure Success—and Keep Trying. Based on the fact that a Cambridge-based National Bureau of Economic Research study showed that black-sounding names were 50% less likely to get a callback than white-sounding names when applying for jobs, you come up with your bias interrupter. You decide to remove all names from resumes before a hiring manager reviews them. While this can be seen as a bandaid if used as the only solution to eliminate bias in an organization, you want to see if it can function well as an interrupter. After six months of filling positions with this new policy, it’s time to take a measurement. Were minorities interviewed more frequently than before now once the names on resumes were removed? If not, try something else. If yes, you’ve found yourself a bias interrupter.

Of course making sure that minorities get interviewed more frequently doesn’t guarantee they will be hired. However, systematically going through instances of bias and discrimination will have a lasting outcome if done diligently.

All major organizational changes need a strong foundation. There needs to be complete buy-in and support from leaders, employees need to be engaged with the initiative, management best practices must be aligned with the effort, and the case for action needs to be strong and clear.

Are you aware of any initiatives used in your organization or organizations you are familiar implemented for eliminating workplace bias? What are they and do you feel they are successful? I’d love to hear about it, please leave me a comment below, send me an email, or find me on Twitter.

Read more about the Interruption Strategy here: Hacking Tech’s Diversity Problem

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