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Breaking Out of the Bias

Geneva: “You’re racially biased.”
Peter: “I am? What do you mean by that?”
Geneva: “You have fired 5 African Americans, and promoted 2 Caucasians. That’s racial bias.”
Peter: “Well, that was purely coincidence.”
Geneva: ”…Cary Agos was not ready to be promoted to Deputy. Matan Brody was. I was. Together we had 2 decades more experience, but you promoted Cary because you liked him. You fired Wendy Scott Carr, you demoted Dana Lodge – there might have been reasons; there are always reasons. But you didn’t listen to their reasons for staying. It’s about who you listen to. That’s the key.”
Peter: ”Well, let’s say you’re right. What should I do?”
Geneva: “Rethink. Review all promotions, return to a strict meritocracy.”

Last night I watched an episode* of The Good Wife** and was rewarded with perhaps the best explanation of workplace bias I’ve ever heard. Whether it’s bias based on race or gender or something else, it is about who managers choose to listen to. . Some researchers put it down to the Racial Empathy Gap, others to cognitive bias. Overall, while it’s unsurprising to learn that the people we are most comfortable listening to are, (more often than not the people who remind us of our family), it is unfortunate, and it does impact the workplace.

The issue with strict meritocracy

There are two problems that arise in a “strict meritocracy,” as Geneva suggests Peter adopt. The first, and more easily explained issue, is that merit is subjective. If Peter is already more likely to listen to a Caucasian employee like Cary, this implies he is also more likely to provide Cary opportunities to show his merit, and more likely to listen when Cary makes mention of his own merit. This is a problem pointed out frequently in regard to gender bias: men are far more likely to discuss their own accomplishments than women. Therefore, managers may think they are focusing on merit when handing out promotions.

The second, and more subtle of the two issues with meritocracy is one that Geneva inadvertently alludes to. “You promoted Cary because you liked him,” she accuses. Here’s the problem…

There is no problem.

There is nothing wrong with managers promoting employees because they like them. In fact, though they needn’t be close friends, teams are more likely to work well together if they respect one another. This is the basis for dozens of books on teamwork, and an entire industry of team-building experiences.

Promotions for employees that the managers like are only problematic if the manager likes the employee in spite of his (or her) merit. In addition, I doubt I am the only woman to have been awkwardly promoted in spite of the fact that I didn’t hit it off with my new coworkers. I was a woman being promoted, and so I stopped the office from being biased against women, and yet the promotion was not the right choice.

Bias: Can’t promote with it, can’t promote without it

The world is getting smaller by the day, but until children are raised in truly multi-cultural, multi-racial, and with models of equality all around them, adults will never magically lose their bias. Until that time comes, all we can do is make an effort to listen. Listen to those we believe don’t merit it, and see what they have to say. Listen to those who look like us, and those who don’t. Listen to those we want to promote, and those we want to fire. I wish I could say this idea had occurred to me before hearing Geneva say it, but it never did. Hopefully now it will stick with me, and with you as well.

*One episode, four episodes… don’t judge!
**I’m only on Season 4, so no spoilers please!

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the director of content strategy at the UX agency Mad*Pow, and she serves as managing editor at UX Booth, a publication about all areas of user experience. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

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