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08 Aug. 2017 | Comments (0)

Corporate America is spending enormous sums of money on unconscious bias awareness training. But there’s little evidence that these training programs succeed in reducing bias — perhaps because there’s little evidencethat unconscious bias correlates with actual biased behavior. And despite the “boom” in bias awareness, women and minorities remain underrepresented in management, especially compared to their educational accomplishments.

It’s impossible to know when managers act on unconscious biases. But it is possible to ascertain when an individual perceives bias against them. In gathering research for our report Disrupt Bias, Drive Value, we decided to take a different approach to studying bias. Rather than looking at managers’ actions, we focused our attention on the employees — particularly, their experiences.

When examining employee experience, perception is reality. Managers and supervisors make spot judgments about their direct reports every day, and employees sense whether those decisions are unfair. “People pick up on bias when they see opportunities handed to colleagues for unclear reasons,” Kate Burke, Head of Human Capital and Chief Talent Officer at AllianceBernstein, advised us. “They’ll ask, ‘Why did that person get the best account, the best region?’ While the manager is likely thinking, ‘Who will connect best with that client base?’ That’s where unfounded assumptions come in.”

Unfounded or not, we wanted to see if employees who perceive bias at work are more likely to disengage or to consider leaving their companies altogether — costing them in career progression and costing their companies in untapped employee potential.

To test these hypotheses, we partnered with NORC at the University of Chicago to survey 3,570 college-educated professionals working full-time in white-collar professions. We asked how they assess themselves in six categories (what we called the “ACE model”) typically used to judge employee potential: ability, ambition, commitment, connections, emotional intelligence, and executive presence. We also asked how they think their superiors assess them and what kind of direct feedback they have received from superiors on these categories.

If employees’ self-rating was positive but they perceived that their superiors’ judgment was negative, we concluded that they perceive bias. For example, let’s say an individual reports that she is driven to advance. However, she also reports that her boss has given her feedback indicating that she lacks drive, or that she hasn’t received any feedback on this subject but she doesn’t think that her superiors see her drive. In either of these two cases, we conclude that this individual feels that her boss’s judgment of her ambition is wrong, and therefore, she perceives bias.

We analyzed the answers from the 1,918 respondents at large companies (with 1,000 employees or more) and displayed our data in a heat map to show who perceives bias in each of the six categories. The figure below shows this data broken into ten talent cohorts — ones that companies typically analyze when developing their diversity and inclusion strategies. Darker squares indicate a greater perception of bias; lighter ones, lower levels of bias. Along the bottom are percentages of each group that perceived bias in two or more categories.

Across the board, 9.2% of respondents at large companies perceive bias in the way their superiors judge their potential on two or more elements — almost one in ten employees, from all different groups and demographics. Looking at individual cohorts, some results from our large-company sample were intuitive. People of color are more likely to perceive bias in two or more categories than whites, and employees born abroad or those with disabilities are at high risk. Further breakdowns showed that among foreign-born employees, those born in Latin America have an even higher rate (19.7%) of perceiving bias in two or more elements.

Other results from survey respondents at large companies were surprising. Men are more likely to perceive bias than women, and Asians are more likely to perceive bias than black or Latino respondents. Drilling down further into the data yields further surprises: Among survey respondents at large companies, gay or bisexual men are about three times as likely as lesbian, gay, or bisexual women to perceive bias (13.3% vs. 4.3%). Looking at specific ACE dimensions, Asian men are more than twice as likely as black women (12.0% vs. 4.9%) to report bias around ambition, and white men are nearly as likely to report bias around their executive presence as Hispanic women (8.6% vs. 9.1%.)

But knowing who perceives bias means little without understanding the implications. In our survey, we also asked questions about employee attitudes and behavior. We found that perceiving bias on at least two dimensions correlates with more frequent reports of emotional distress, higher employee disengagement, and lower employee retention. Individuals reported that they are:

  • Angry and burned out. Employee perception of bias takes an emotional toll. According to our survey, respondents from large companies who perceive bias in two or more dimensions are more than twice as likely to regularly feel angry (27% vs 13%) and sad (19% vs 9%) at work. They’re 1.6 times as likely (37% vs 23%) to feel cynical on a regular basis, and they’re more than twice as likely (75% vs 35%) to not feel proud to work for their companies.
  • Disengaged and alienated. Employee disengagement costs U.S. corporations $450 billion to $550 billion per year. Of respondents at large companies who perceived negative bias in two or more categories, 20% said they were disengaged at work, compared to only 7% of those who didn’t perceive bias. In addition, respondents at large companies who report bias in two or more categories they are more than four times as likely (33% vs 8%) to say that they regularly feel alienated at work. They’re also 1.5 times as likely to expend some energy repressing parts of their persona at work.
  • Looking to leave. Employees at large companies who perceive bias on at least two dimensions are 60% more likely to have looked for another job while at work in the past six months, and 3.1 times as likely to say they intend to leave their current company within a year. This has high costs for companies, since losing employees is expensive. Direct replacement costs can reach 50%-60% of annual salary, and total costs from turnover range from 90% to 200% of annual salary.

In considering these findings, it’s important to remember that our focus is employee perception. It is unclear whether these perceptions are reflecting true instances of managerial bias. But even so, this perception has implications: Employees are suffering and imposing real costs on their employers. While more research can be done to dig deeper into why these perceptions exist, managers should be aware of this discontent in their teams and take steps to correct it. We uncovered three such solutions: inclusive leadership, diversity in executive ranks, and access to sponsorship.

Different combinations of these solutions will be appropriate for different organizations. For all these solutions, however, our research shifts the focus from correcting managers’ unconscious bias to being aware of employee needs and the cost of bias to the organization. These options offer ways to enlist managers as allies in diversity and inclusion efforts, rather than accusing them as perpetrators of discrimination.

 

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 08/01/2017

View our complete listing of Leadership Development, Employee Engagement and Diversity & Inclusion blogs.

  • About the Author:Sylvia Ann Hewlett

    Sylvia Ann Hewlett

    Sylvia Ann Hewlett is an author, an economist and the founder of the Center for Talent Innovation, a New York based research organization where she now serves as Chair Emeritus. A labor economist with…

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  • About the Author:Ripa Rashid

    Ripa Rashid

    Ripa Rashid, senior vice president at the Center for Work-Life Policy, has worked across Europe, the Americas, and Asia-Pacific. She is the coauthor of the Harvard Business Review article "The Battle …

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  • About the Author:Laura Sherbin

    Laura Sherbin

    Laura Sherbin is the Executive Vice President and Director of Research at Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), and is also an Adjunct Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at…

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