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Bias Interrupters Improving Opportunity

The Center for WorkLife Law is helping lead the change for equity in the workplace

Bias can prove difficult to work with, endure and overcome. A heavy tangible and emotional cost is often suffered by those on the receiving end of it. Yet science is creating greater understanding to problem solve in effective, meaningful ways. 

The Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of The Law is doing critical and interesting work in this space as it “advances gender and racial equity in the workplace and higher education.” 

Specifically, its mission and commitment is to illuminate and provide solutions for the type of equity for people that respects their humanity, skills, potential and value. 

(Rachel Korn)

“The answer here is simple. We’re striving to create a future where people are able to thrive in the workplace regardless of their gender, race, parental status, or any other identity factors like age or class background,” says Rachel Korn, research director at the Center for WorkLife Law. 

The reasoning behind the work is clear. 

“If we achieve this, the people at the top of organizations, and in the workforce more generally, will have the same demographic makeup as the country as a whole,” she says.

The problems, longstanding, remain significant challenges to solve.

“Bias training and culture change initiatives have been around for decades, but women still hold just 15% of high-level positions in most industries and people of color hold less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEO positions,” Korn says.

It is rare for any organizational leadership to recognize and confess they are biased and respond accordingly. They believe they are working objectively and equitably for all. The research just doesn’t support it. 

“We know that organizations that see themselves as meritocratic actually have more bias, and 40 years of social science research tells us that bias will occur unless it is intentionally interrupted.” 

Rachel Korn 

Interrupting it. Intentionally. Accomplishing it can be difficult, working through belief systems, convictions and default behaviors, yet it’s possible. 

(Image by Christine Schmidt from Pixabay)

“Bias Interrupters are evidence-based tweaks that interrupt the transmission of bias in basic business systems like hiring, performance evaluations, and assignments,” Korn says. “They don’t rely on culture change – they’re based on objective metrics.” 

Culture change is challenging in the micro and macro. Resistance is a common obstacle so the tweaks rooted in evidence are helpful to creating buy-in and progress. 

“Bias Interrupters are iterative,” Korn says. “So you can start small and ratchet up the interrupters until you see the change you are looking for.” 

That repetition of a process generates a sequence of outcomes. 

The Center has different approaches to problem solving, one being a Workplace Experiences survey that helps identify where the bias exists and offers a tailored solution. Korn detailed how a Bias Interrupter works in practice. 

(Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash)

“For example, it’s common to see men judged on their potential or what they might achieve in the future, while women are judged on their performance or what they have already achieved,” she says. “In this scenario, it’s harder for women to get hired, because they need to have already achieved more than similarly qualified men. A Bias Interrupter here would be to pre-commit in writing to the important job criteria, and to keep track of when and from whom requirements are waived.” 

This blind spot is problematic for talent acquisition and later, equity and quite likely, employee retention. An organization’s internal reputation suffers.

The process is not only identifying problem points and creating clarity of self awareness, it adjusts the hiring framework to include higher level consistency for equity, evaluations have proven, and the bias is being managed without change management with hiring managers.

“We haven’t changed anything about the people on the search committee, but we’ve changed the system so that bias is less likely to occur,” Korn says.

Research and analysis of findings is ongoing. 

“We recently completed an experiment with Monica Biernat, a professor at the University of Kansas, using our Bias Interrupters performance evaluations toolkit,” Korn says. “Preliminary findings suggest that using the tool kit leads reviewers to give higher ratings, monetary bonuses, and promotion recommendations for both women and black workers.” 

A segment of society that has been proven to be bypassed for equity are now experiencing gradual improvement. It’s not just opportunity and income though that is a result of the Center for WorkLife Law’s work. 

“Our clients are extremely interested in employees’ feelings of belonging and intentions to stay at the company long term,” Korn said. 

This is desired, valuable engagement and retention. 

“When people experience bias in the workplace, they often feel like they don’t belong and they see themselves moving on to a new company,” Korn says. “Reducing the amount of bias employees experience is a key factor in improving these important outcomes.” 

What has surprised Korn in her work might be surprising to many organizations and their leaders to learn. 

“Personally, I was surprised by the ubiquity of bias in the workplace. We work with people across many different organizations, industries, and even different countries, but we see the same patterns of bias playing out in all these different workplaces,” she says. 

(Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay)

This realization has proven helpful psychologically for attendees as well. 

“Bias can be an isolating experience, so learning that you aren’t alone and that your experiences are not unique can be really validating, Korn has found. “When I give a Bias Interrupters training at an organization, someone will inevitably come up at the end to say that they’ve experienced the type of bias we talk about.” 

The insight provided, the approaches to problem solving for organizations have been encouraging to Korn. 

“When they tell me that they’ve learned new ways to deal with that bias in their workplace, it feels extremely rewarding to me,” she said. 

The brightest vision Korn has with Bias Interrupters and making an impact that empowers more of society is helping take the ideal to a practiced norm.

“I would love to see every person have an equal opportunity to succeed regardless of their race, gender, parental status, or any other identity factors. It’s going to take a lot of work to get there, especially in today’s political climate, but we don’t have to accept inequality, racism, or sexism as an inevitable future,” she said. 

The study of how we think about a goal can lead to different outcomes has been a continuing focus for Korn, even if challenging at times. 

“In the work we do at the Center for WorkLife Law, this gets a little tricky because you can’t just tell people how to think. So, the position I’m in right now is really interesting, because we’re not asking people to change their motivations at all,” she says. “We’re working within the business systems, and seeing real change in workplaces without having to change the people.” 

Her passion is to help those who are being overlooked and undervalued. 

“I’d love to continue working on improving workplace outcomes for marginalized groups.”

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