I’ve found that bias education and structured processes help mitigate the potential for candidate interviews and performance reviews to be skewed by bias (such as contrast bias or likeability bias.)
As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the gender wage gap” I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Ernst. Rachel is the Vice President of Employee Success at Reflektive, where she oversees the end-to-end HR function, consults on best practices with prospects and customers, and builds product content. Her career in HR spans compensation, learning and development, leadership coaching, people analytics and organizational design. She strives to evolve the performance management ecosystem to fulfill its ultimate goal — creating a work environment where people are enabled to be their most productive and authentic selves. Before joining Reflektive, Ernst led Quantcast’s learning and development team and then oversaw HR business partners and HR operations. Prior to that, Ernst served as Director of HR at Fidelity Investments, partnering with executives in the institutional business arm of Fidelity as well as building base, bonus and career structures for multiple Fidelity businesses. Ernst earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations and German at the University of California, Davis, and an MBA in International Business from the Brandeis International Business School.
Thank you so much for joining us, Rachel! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?
Throughout my life — starting in high school when I volunteered in a youth leadership program at my temple — I’ve always found fulfillment in bringing people together to discover and build their own leadership skills. College brought me the chance to help create a new sorority on campus, which made for a great opportunity to grow my conflict resolution skills and learn to appreciate new and varying perspectives. We actually turned that sorority into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which allowed me to spend my early 20s traveling the country as a member of its board of directors. I visited other schools to expand the sorority to new campuses, teach young women to become successful leaders, as well as discuss the importance of creative problem-solving in challenging situations. When I spoke with a career advisor in business school, she strongly suggested I consider HR as a path for my future career — based on where my interests and strengths lay. And now, after nearly 15 years in the industry, I’d say she was right!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?
As an HR professional, a significant part of my job entails ensuring employees have the tools, resources, knowledge and experience to do their best work. A pivotal moment in my career was one I had with a former manager as I was about to have a 1:1 with one of the leaders in my businesses. She said, “Coaching doesn’t happen in training sessions. It happens every day.” She taught me to approach every single day with the belief that it’s a coaching opportunity. I try to remind myself of this often. Coaching happens in the moment, but you have to make the conscious decision to really be in the moment to take advantage. Before every conversation, you have to think about what role you’re going to take. When appropriate, I will switch my mindset between, “I’m a coach, an advisor, a listener, a sounding board or an advice giver.”
Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on in my career, I was dealing with two teams that were butting heads and stepping on each other’s toes. I tried to rectify the situation, or at least lessen the tension, by organizing a meeting for the two teams to complete a RACI chart (to determine who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed). I did all the prep work and was ready to conduct the session, but only two of the 15 people showed up.
Not only was I frustrated at the lack of attendance, I also felt defeated because I couldn’t put the RACI session to use, as I was sure that would work. I eventually realized the situation was far beyond a RACI conversation and indicated a much larger issue — one that required a different course of action. For starters, the two leaders of the separate teams needed to align, so I spent some time facilitating a conversation between them. I also let them know that when they don’t show up to a meeting, their teams will follow suit. Attendance is a communication of how much of a priority something is to you.
I didn’t want to deviate from the original plan, but I needed the flexibility to understand that the more you dig in, you may find your original solution may not be the right solution. And that’s okay.
Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. Even in 2019, women still earn about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Can you explain three of the main factors that are causing the wage gap?
- First and foremost, the wage gap is perpetuated by bias and employees’ ability and confidence to negotiate pay. The playing field that men and women enter is not level — and this is not always a conscious decision. Many companies fail to perform regular compensation audits to look for discrepancies in pay and promotion rates, as well as ensure they are in line with market standards. Furthermore, companies that uncover discrepancies may have trouble finding budget to rectify them. Overall salary may not tell the whole story either, especially in industries that tend to generate wealth through stock options. Women in tech only get about half of the company equity men receive, indicating a much larger gender pay gap than salary alone would suggest.
- The wage gap is not just about unequal paychecks. At every company, regardless of well intent, subconscious bias seeps into the workplace every day and throughout all stages of the employee lifecycle. Bias can impact who gets promoted and who receives raises — which generally tends to be men more than women as they progress in level. If awareness of these biases isn’t there, they will continue on in a vicious cycle.
- If the highest-level executives at a company aren’t making a conscious effort and commitment to close the gender wage gap, it likely won’t happen. Changing long-held business standards and expectations around pay equity requires an executive team that leads by example. Recent research we conducted at Reflektive reveals that half of American employees do not feel that their leaders follow through on their commitments. Trust between employees and corporate leadership is difficult to build and can diminish quickly, which can result in very challenging situations. A leadership team that says, “We recognize this is an issue, and here is what we’re actively doing to solve for it” opens up the floor for accountability and real progress. If it’s not made a business priority, the wage gap will persist or even increase. Gender pay equity is a daily practice, and it requires the whole company to be on board to ensure that it is happening.
Something else to note is that the gender pay gap varies by geography and industry. Wage equity for technology workers in the U.S. is better than other global locations, such as Toronto, London and Paris. And San Francisco — where Reflektive is headquartered — actually has the smallest gender wage gap compared to other technology hubs across the country. But it’s still an issue.
Can you share with our readers what your work is doing to help close the gender wage gap?
The path to eliminating the gender wage gap involves mindfulness, executive support and effective company policy.
Gender pay equity is one of the most foundational ways to create an inclusive environment. During my career, it has become very clear that gender pay equity is a daily practice. Leveling the playing field for men and women in the workforce requires education, awareness and data-based metrics to be incorporated into daily decisions. Using people analytics tools can help identify and manage unconscious biases, as well as monitor changes over time and set a benchmark of success.
At Reflektive, we believe that the gender wage gap is a critical issue requiring a top-down perspective in every industry, and we are proud to have a leadership team that agrees. Education, bias training, mindfulness and creative thinking are built into the structure of how Reflektive handles the hiring process, ongoing employee engagement…and even the departure process.
We have also created and nurtured an initiative called ReflektHER, where women are given leadership, mentorship and professional growth opportunities, as well as a safe space to connect with other women leaders.
Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the gender wage gap. Please share a story or an example for each.
1.Fair salary negotiations require an awareness of fair pay across your company and industry, as well a commitment to equality.
This starts with the hiring process. Sometimes this means offering candidates more than what they’re asking for if they aren’t aware of, or comfortable, standing up for their value (which tends to happen more often with women). At Reflektive, when this scenario happens, we will offer the salary we believe is fair for the level of their experience, even if it’s higher than what the candidate has indicated they’re looking for. We come up with this number by reviewing what our current employees in similar positions make, as well as continuously consulting market information, which tells us what companies are offering candidates in the same labor market.
2. Compensation analysis is not only during the hiring process, but through an employee’s lifecycle, as well.
Several years ago, I was in the negotiation process with a male candidate. He asked for more in salary than several women who were already at the company in the same job — and who had approximately the same experience. He also had a competing offer for another company that we had to contend with. The hiring manager really wanted to extend an offer, and we had to fill the role very quickly. Having started my career in compensation, every single offer that has come across my plate is reviewed relative to market data and internal equity. I also take into account tenure and interview performance. I ended up approving the offer to go out at the higher salary point that was asked for but with a caveat — that we also increase the salary of other women at the same level.
At Reflektive, we conduct compensation analysis at least twice per year to ensure we are paying all of our employees equitably. We do this by reviewing pay by multiple demographic filters, including (but not limited to) level, gender and department. We recommend all companies do this kind of analysis at least once (if not twice) per year, depending on growth rates, to ensure pay equity across the organization, and then addressing any pay equity issues.
3. I’ve found that bias education and structured processes help mitigate the potential for candidate interviews and performance reviews to be skewed by bias (such as contrast bias or likeability bias.)
We know women are much more likely to receive feedback on their behavior and demeanor, whereas men tend to be evaluated based on their accomplishments. We often see this manifest in comments such as, “She just doesn’t seem that confident” or “She’s so bossy.” Having a standard performance review process and implementing structured interviews are two ways to make sure promotions and new hires happen consistently and fairly.
4. Getting buy-in from the highest levels of a company to first measure and then act in improving employee engagement, equality and happiness in the workplace is critical.
Making equity a core value is even better. If faced with executives who drag their feet in committing to instituting employee engagement programs or who balk at the costs associated with fair and equal compensation, there are ways to align leadership with the benefits. Building a strategic team of executive allies that believe in the cause at your peer level creates an opportunity for sharing multiple perspectives on the ROI of such efforts directly with leadership. Bringing in various experts to further discuss these nuances creates third-party, objective credibility. After all, companies have a business incentive to take a proactive approach making sure they’re known for fairness and equality. If they gain a reputation for bias, it can hurt them in the competition for talent, which is currently at an all-time high.
5. The gender pay gap is also visibly perpetuated by the fact that women are promoted less frequently than men across industries.
According to a recent study by McKinsey, women are asking for promotions and raises at about the same rates as men; but for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 79 women are. To reverse this trend and make sure women have equal opportunities for promotion and appropriate compensation, companies must conduct frequent promotion audits, as well as equalize internal employee ratings and performance reviews.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
A movement I would be proud to inspire would be requiring all companies to have at least half of their leadership team made up of women. While women are entering the workforce at near equal rates as men, they are dramatically outnumbered in senior leadership. According to McKinsey, only about one in five C-suite leaders is a woman. If things continue at their current rate, the number of women in leadership will only increase by one percent in the next 10 years. Underrepresentation is a persistent issue for women and people of color in the workplace. Ensuring companies of the future have more inclusive, diverse environments is something I’m very passionate about and working toward every single day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Don’t assume! You know what they say… assumptions create a lot of problems both in and out of the workplace. At work, it creates problems such as not being curious or not asking questions to learn more about someone’s point of view and, instead, just reacting. If someone says something that upsets you, you might come back at them because of your emotions in the moment. Instead of saying, “That’s interesting…can you tell me more about that?” you’ll respond defensively in the moment. I see a lot of that happening at work. In my own personal life, if I’m frustrated with a friend, I’ll pause and ask them if they’ll tell me a bit more about that so I can better understand and not jump to conclusions. It’s a lot harder in your personal life than at work. Either way, you have to train yourself.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would have to pick Ellen DeGeneres. What she has overcome in her life is nothing short of inspiring, and she does so much good for the world. Her honesty about who she is nearly cost her everything, including her career, but she still persisted. Time and time again, she has stood up for herself, often against men in more powerful positions. As a result, she is an incredibly influential and entertaining person who serves as a role model for a significant following. Her resilience is astounding. Plus, she’s hilarious; her humor can lighten anyone’s mood.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.