By Grace Donnelly
July 13, 2017

There’s plenty of research documenting how managers should combat their own unconscious bias, but what about the toll bias takes on workers who experience it firsthand?

A new study from the Center for Talent Innovation quantifies the bias perceived by employees in white collar jobs and how that bias costs their companies.

“We measure the damage done when individuals see systems as unfair, as illegitimate,” Sylvia Hewlett, founder and CEO of CTI, said of the report at a New York City event to present the findings Wednesday night.

The research used assessments on ability and ambition, commitment and connections, and emotional intelligence and executive presence to measure potential — an intangible and subjective characteristic that is shaped by unconscious bias, but often plays a significant role in personnel decisions. We’re likely to see potential in people who remind us of ourselves.

For example, manager and senior executive roles in the private sector are still 86% white and 70% male, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“The data confirms that being an outsider is going to put you at a disadvantage whenever subjectivity is involved,” said Philippe Krakowsky, executive vice president, chief strategy and talent officer at Interpublic Group.

To measure the perception of workers in corporate America, employees were asked to assess themselves on the indicators of potential and then asked how their superiors would assess them. The study recognized workers with better self-assessments than manager score predictions as perceiving bias in the workplace.

The research showed companies would experience less innovation and productivity as well as high costs associated with frequent turnover and burnout when employees perceived bias.

“We purposely focused on perception — the employee’s perception of themselves. Why? Because it is their lived reality,” said Laura Sherbin, CFO and head of research at CTI. And the costs of these perceptions are a reality for companies.

Of employees who experienced bias, 34% reported withholding ideas or solutions in the last six months and 48% said they looked for a new job while at their current job during the same time period.

But there are three key factors that shed light on solutions. Employees were 64% less likely to perceive bias at companies with diverse leaders, 87% less likely when they had inclusive leaders, and 90% less likely when they had sponsors.

Georgetown University professor Sukari Pinnock, who runs the school’s Strategic Diversity and Inclusion Management program, had mixed feelings on some aspects of the study’s methodology. After reviewing it, Pinnock said she’s skeptical about using differing self-assessments and guesses at manager assessments as a marker for the presence of unconscious bias.

“As someone who has worked with over 100 coaching clients who have had 360 assessments administered, I can say that it is usually the case that client and the supervisor assessments are rarely aligned,” she said. “Bias is always in the mix — on both sides of the equation.”

While she questioned some of the assumptions in the report, she did offer praise for it.

“I do believe that this report was quite well done and brought forth new awareness of what keeps women and other marginalized groups from advancing to those higher rungs on the ladder,” Pinnock added.

Ogilvy and Mather, one of the 17 partners for the CTI study, had already implemented one recommendation in the results: sponsorship. The company has a sponsorship program designed to help women excel that has seen success, said Donna Pedro, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the advertising firm.

While sponsors are similar to mentors, they tend to be more deliberate and powerful workplace allies. Mentors prepare people to move up, while sponsors make it happen.

“I have sponsors who started out with one sponsee and now have four or five because they they have really seen the positive of being able to develop talent,” Pedro said. “I think that’s the bottom line in all of this.”

The advertising company hopes to expand the sponsorship model to include other underrepresented employees.

“We make assumptions about people and we can be wrong so many times,” she said “If we approach our colleagues and our coworkers and give them the benefit of the doubt and are curious about who they are and don’t make assumptions about them, I think we will be better off as a workplace.”

Hewlett, the CTI CEO, concluded the event by reflecting on our current political climate. “We know that our culture, our corridors of power are newly filled with humiliation and hurt,” she said, adding that companies have power to make positive change at a national level.

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