How to Root Out Bias, Prejudice and Bullying To Create a Kick-Ass Culture of Inclusion
What follows are excerpts/adaptations from my latest book, Just Work.
The Root Causes of Workplace Injustice: Bias, Prejudice and Bullying
What gets in the way of basic fairness at work? At Just Work, we believe there are three root causes of workplace injustice: bias, prejudice, and bullying. Each is different and must be considered separately if we are to come up with the most effective ways to combat each. When a power imbalance is present, discrimination, harassment, and physical violations can and will occur.
Here are some short definitions of and thoughts on how to respond to bias, prejudice, and bullying, which we consider to be the root causes of workplace injustice:
Bias is “not meaning it.” Bias, often called “unconscious bias,” comes from the part of our mind that jumps to conclusions, usually without our even being aware of it. These conclusions and assumptions aren’t always wrong, but they often are, especially when they reflect stereotypes. We do not have to be the helpless victims of our brains. We can learn to slow down and question our biases.
Prejudice is “meaning it.” Unfortunately, when we do stop to think, we often don’t always come up with the best answer. Sometimes, we rationalize our biases and they harden into prejudices. In other words, we justify our biases rather than challenging their flawed assumptions and stereotypes.
Bullying is “being mean,” the intentional, repeated use of in-group status or power to harm or humiliate others. Sometimes bullying comes with prejudice, but often it’s a more instinctive behavior. There may be no thought or ideology at all behind it. It can be a plan or just an animal instinct to dominate, to coerce.
Match the Response to the Problem
The most effective responses match the problem we’re trying to solve.
To root out bias, prejudice, and bullying we must respond to each differently. When people’s biases are pointed out to them clearly and compassionately, they usually correct them and apologize.
Prejudice, however, is a conscious and ingrained belief. People don’t change their prejudices simply because someone points them out. Holding up a mirror doesn’t help — people like what they see. What’s important is to draw a clear boundary between people’s right to believe whatever they want and their freedom to impose their prejudices on others.
Bullying has to incur real consequences to be stopped. If bullies were swayed by being aware of the harm they are doing to the people they are bullying, they wouldn’t be treating other people badly in the first place. Usually they are trying to hurt someone. Pointing out the pain they are inflicting doesn’t make them stop and may even encourage them to double down.
Power Corrupts: Discrimination and Harassment
When managers have too much power, things quickly get even more unfair and inefficient. Bias and prejudice give way to discrimination. Bullying gives way to verbal or psychological harassment.
We’ll define discrimination as excluding others from opportunities. Discrimination happens when you add power to bias or prejudice. Harassment is intimidating others in a way that creates a hostile work environment. Harassment happens when you add power to bias or bullying. In the absence of mechanisms that hold managers accountable and give all employees a reliable way to report abusive behavior, discrimination and harassment are predictable. If people are allowed to rule by fiat, injustice and inefficiency will thrive. Innovation will suffer. Morale will plummet, and your most talented and hard-to-replace employees will run for the exits. Your most vulnerable employees, who have no easy exit, will stay and suffer and perhaps eventually sue you.
Each of us likes to think that we are good people and no matter what temptations we face, no matter what kind of system we find ourselves in, we will behave like the good people we aspire to be. However, both history and psychological experiments demonstrate that this is often not the case.
A growing body of research suggests that the more power a person has, the more likely their decision-making is to be flawed by bias and prejudice. Research also shows that bias and prejudice rather than rational decision-making often influence how resources are allocated.
Increased power also means increased bullying when the person who has power feels insecure, incapable of controlling things, and not respected. And who doesn’t feel insecure, at least some of the time?
In systems where one person dominates, dissent is squashed, conformity sets in, and the skills and knowledge of all the other people don’t get adequately utilized. The result is stagnation.
The strength of your team depends on each individual, and the strength of each individual depends on the team. And unlike wolves, lobsters, or other animals, we don’t have to organize into crude dominance hierarchies to get things done. We are human beings with spoken language, books, and supercomputers in our pockets. We can create working environments in which everyone can be their fullest self and do their best work — thereby making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
But for that to happen, enlightened leaders must embrace checks and balances on their own power or risk crushing both the individuals and their team’s potential for effective collaboration. And they must be willing to quantify their bias if they are to stamp it out.
Checks and balances can foster systemic justice
Every workplace gives managers the authority to make decisions that have profound consequences for those who work for them. Traditionally, managers dole out or withhold resources; they decide who gets hired, fired, or promoted; they determine bonuses, who gets the plum assignments, who gets stuck with the grunt work, and so on. This makes it risky for employees to report harassment or discrimination. When managers make all these decisions unilaterally, they have too much power. They can use this power to harass or bully employees, and there’s not much their employees can do about it if they want to keep their jobs. Employees are disempowered.
None of this is inevitable. It happens as a result of the choices we make about management systems and processes. You can weave checks and balances into your organizational design, or you can design a system that creates mini-dictators. If you do the latter, the unchecked power you’ve given makes harassment much more likely.
When leaders create checks and balances in their organizational design and in their work processes, they help prevent power from corrupting their teams or themselves. Checks and balances are important for achieving results as well as for protecting employees from harassment. Research shows that cohesive, empowered teams will outperform a collection of individuals on a wide range of tasks. High-functioning teams tend to make better decisions than high-functioning individuals. So when teams replace unilateral authority, better promotion decisions will be made and fewer employees will be harassed.
In this instance, checks and balances means management systems in which leaders are held accountable for doing their jobs well rather than given unilateral power or authority. This means that no one person in an organization, including its CEO, should be able to hire, fire, promote, or pay another person without oversight. Mechanisms that employees trust must be in place for reporting harassment or sexual violence.
These kinds of systems of checks and balances are already in place in many of the world’s most successful companies. For example, management systems that stripped unilateral authority from individual managers and gave it instead to empowered teams were an essential design principle of the processes that SVP of Business Operations Shona Brown put in place at Google.
Checks and balances on power in the workplace do not eliminate abuses, but they are an excellent place to start. Both in principle and in practice, they embody the sort of responsive, accountable, and collaborative “just work”place we are seeking to create.
If the teams you have in place are homogeneous, however, checks and balances won’t be enough to prevent discrimination and harassment, because those responsible for checking and balancing will share some of your biases. And, if you don’t take proactive measures, teams will become more homogeneous over time. Even though any manager worth their salt knows they shouldn’t hire people who are “just like them,” they do it anyway. This is bad because it leads to both discrimination — conscious or unconscious — and to poorer decision-making, because homogeneous teams tend to make poorer decisions than their diverse counterparts.
To move from homogeneity towards diversity you need to get proactive about noticing and correcting the ways that bias is affecting your decisions about whom you hire, promote, mentor, and fire, thereby reinforcing your homogeneity. This is what we call quantifying your bias.
Quantify bias to promote systemic justice
If your goal is to create a just workplace, proactively look for discrimination — for signs that your organization is systematically discriminating against some people while over-promoting others. Do so with the same energy you’d use to investigate a decrease in profitability, research a competitor, explore a new opportunity, launch a product, or enter a new market to grow your business. Think of discrimination as a virus in your operating system. It will eventually kill your system if you don’t proactively identify it and fix it.
Quantify your bias. Measure the progress you’re making toward creating a more diverse, inclusive organization. Quantifying your bias is about using metrics to alert you to problems that need fixing. Measure not just the lagging indicators (i.e., the ones that tell you you’ve lost the game after you’ve lost) but the leading indicators (i.e., the ones that tell you that you may lose if you don’t change something) as well.
For example, don’t only measure what percentage of new hires are people who are underrepresented. Analyze each step in your hiring process and look for ways to improve. Measure the impact of these improvements on representation. Measure what percentage of résumés reviewed were from people who are underrepresented. Look at whether your job descriptions use biased language; change them and notice if more people who are underrepresented begin applying.
Measure how many people you interviewed were underrepresented, and ask yourself whether there’s bias in the selection process. Be similarly thorough when measuring your compensation and promotion processes. Your organization will not reflect the exact breakdown of the population at large. But if your leadership team is 90 percent men, you’re missing some great women candidates and probably not promoting the women you do have at the same rate you’re promoting the men. And when the numbers don’t look good, the answer is obviously not “hire more women even if they are not qualified,” any more than the answer would be to fiddle with your books if your profitability looks bad. It may mean that your criteria for judging who is qualified is flawed due to biased or prejudiced assumptions. When the lagging indicators look bad, you’ve got to dig deep, figure out what the leading indicators are, and address them.
The resistance with which this is met from leaders who make a big deal of being data driven is almost comical.
When you do dig into the numbers, spend your energy looking for solutions — not excuses or rationalizations. This is hard because few people like to think of themselves or their organization as discriminatory. So you have to overcome your biases and your desire to believe you are not doing anything wrong. You have to dig into the numbers proactively if you are going to understand what you’re doing wrong.
Unchecked power, whether positional power or physical power, paves the way for the full range of physical violations ranging from the creepy hug to the violent assault.
It would be nice, at least from the manager’s perspective, to have absolute rules regarding touch in the workplace. No touching. No dating. No affairs. No casual sex. But humans have never been able to follow these sorts of rules.
While it’s impossible to legislate matters of the heart, you can put guardrails in place. Here is a basic articulation of a culture of consent:
It is the responsibility of the toucher to be aware of how the other person feels about being touched. If the other person doesn’t want to be touched, don’t touch. If there’s any doubt, don’t touch.
If leaders apply this rule to all the different ways that touch can manifest in the office, we will all have more productive relationships in the workplace, and fewer disasters.
People spend most of their waking hours at their jobs. It’s unreasonable to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to relationships at work. But for reasons already discussed, such relationships do need to be managed. You can’t have a free-for-all in your office if you want to get sh*t done.
Put in place a “No sex, physical intimacy, or dating in your chain of command” rule. And when that rule gets violated, as it inevitably will, make sure it is the more senior person who must leave their role or the company.
Finally, put in place trusted reporting mechanisms that protect people who report crimes.
Roles and Responsibilities
Who Is Responsible for Fixing These Problems? Everyone.
Your degrees of freedom and responsibility when confronting bias, prejudice, and bullying depend on your role. The shared goal is to create an environment in which everyone can do better work and be happier while they are doing it.
In any instance of injustice you encounter at work, you will play at least one of four different roles: person harmed, upstander, person who caused harm, or leader. Each of these roles has its own responsibilities.
As you consider these roles, recognize that they are not fixed identities. Instead, they are temporary parts you play. You may at different moments play all of the roles. And sometimes, confusingly, you may even find yourself in two or more roles at once.
Our active awareness that we are playing one or more roles in certain moments reminds us that these roles are neither static nor conclusive. When we understand the perspectives of people playing the other roles, we can come up with better strategies for responding in a way that creates real change. We can take a broader view of ourselves and others as people who can always learn and improve. This distinction is of the utmost importance because it allows us to grow and change after harmful incidents rather than feel we will forever be defined by them.
A key goal of Just Work is to build compassion for ourselves in all the roles and to develop strategies for responding more effectively to workplace injustice, no matter what role we find ourselves in.
ROLE: PERSON HARMED
Choose Your Response
If you’re on the receiving end of workplace injustice, your responsibility is first and foremost to yourself. This means remembering that you get to choose your response, even when your choices are hard or limited. Recognizing those choices, evaluating their costs and benefits,
and choosing one of them can help to restore your sense of agency. Even when you have been victimized, you have a choice in how you respond. When you make that choice, put yourself first. You have a right to act in self-defense.
Hardly anyone who has suffered injustice wants to keep quiet about it. One’s initial instinct is to speak out. Yet that instinct then gets repressed in a thousand different ways. And that loss of ability to speak out, is debilitating — sometimes even more harmful than the original experience.
How can we learn to recognize the injustice so that we can respond in a way that restores our sense of freedom and agency?
While we will offer a number of suggestions, we are all about choices, not additional pressure.
In some instances of workplace abuse, there may be considerable pressure on a victim to come forward — even when the risks are both obvious and considerable. We do not want to encourage people harmed to make any choices that will harm them further.
Rather we offer this observation. Confrontation has obvious costs and hidden benefits; silence has hidden costs and obvious benefits. The more aware you are of both the obvious costs and the hidden benefits, the better your decision will be. If you weigh the consequences and decide to confront the injustice, this book will offer specific suggestions for how to do so in a way that doesn’t destroy your career; we also acknowledge there’s wisdom in choosing your battles. Choosing not to respond is a legitimate choice, and nobody should judge you for making it.
Either way, making a conscious choice enables you to reclaim your sense of agency.
Finally, if you later regret whatever decision you did make, cut yourself some slack. Beating yourself up for not responding the “right” way just adds insult to injury; don’t forget that you were the wronged party in the first place! Self-forgiveness doesn’t mean ignoring our regrets. It means acknowledging how hard it is to confront workplace injustice, forgiving ourselves for missed opportunities, and doing our best to learn and do better next time.
Intervene. Don’t be a passive bystander.
The word “observer” suggests passivity. If you witness injustice and want to help fight it, you need to be an upstander who proactively finds a way to support people harmed, not a passive bystander who simply watches harm being done, perhaps feeling bad about it, but not doing anything about it.
When you notice injustice, whether it’s small or large, you have a responsibility to take action. And you have an obligation to notice it: being unaware does not give you absolution. Admittedly, you can’t always solve the problem. But you can always show solidarity with the person who is being harmed, and that acknowledgment — that “something is wrong here” — is invaluable.
ROLE: PERSON CAUSING HARM
Listen and address
Maybe you didn’t mean to cause harm, maybe you were unaware of how what you said or did affected the person. Or maybe you actually meant to inflict harm, but you didn’t expect anyone to notice. Maybe you were just angry on that particular day or felt threatened. Maybe you later regretted what you had done.
The fact remains, you harmed another person, and now someone’s pointing it out to you.
How are you going to react? Are you going to explode in a defensive/ aggressive rage? Are you going to be coldly dismissive? Or are you going to take the complaint to heart?
It doesn’t feel good when someone tells you you’ve harmed them, particularly when that wasn’t your intention. But as with critical feedback of any kind, consider it a gift. Feedback can help you learn to be more considerate, to avoid harming other people, and (at minimum) to correct
your behavior before it escalates and causes greater harm and/or gets you into serious trouble. Listen to what you’re being told and address it.
Prevent and Repair
One of the great joys of leadership is the opportunity to create a collaborative, respectful working environment. A healthy organization is not merely an absence of unpleasant symptoms. Creating a just working environment is about eliminating bad behavior and reinforcing collaborative, respectful behavior. That means teaching people not to allow bias to cloud judgment, not to allow people to impose their prejudices on others; it means creating consequences for bullying and preventing discrimination, harassment, and physical violations from occurring on your team. Workplace injustice is not inevitable. There are specific actions you can take so that you and your team can love the work and working together, so that you can all get sh*t done, fast and fair. And once you start taking these actions, you set in motion a virtuous cycle.