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How companies get inclusion wrong — and how to get it right

Companies can improve inclusion and diversity by reforming decision-making processes to eliminate biases, write Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris.

9 min read



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To assess its progress in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), a company needs to make several different calculations. Improvements in its diversity depends on determining the extent to which it has increased the proportion of women and members of underrepresented groups (W&U) in various job types, managerial roles and executive positions. Progress with respect to equity depends on the extent to which it has narrowed the gap between the compensation levels, promotion rates and leadership positions of W&U and white, heterosexual, cis-gendered and able-bodied (“advantaged”) men. In other words, to measure how well it is doing at advancing diversity and equity, a company needs to crunch some numbers. 

Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris
Kramer and Harris

When it comes to inclusion, however, a company can’t determine its progress by simply looking at metrics. Inclusion is a matter of feelings: how employees feel about their acceptance in and treatment by their workplaces. There are, thus, two aspects to inclusion. First, the extent to which employees feel welcomed, respected and civilly treated by their fellow employees — and, thus, able to bring their best selves to work. Second, the extent to which employees feel they are being fairly treated by their managers with respect to:

  • the evaluations and rewards they receive for their performance;
  • the resources, support and mentoring available to them in connection with that performance; and
  • the frequency with which they can exercise their leadership ability, obtain advice as to how to improve it, and receive encouragement to seek further advancement. 

For the most part, companies seem to be going about strengthening the first part of inclusion — fostering employees’ feelings of acceptance, respect and belonging — in the right ways. With respect to assuring employees have a justified feeling they are and will be treated fairly, companies, by and large, are failing. Indeed, according to Gallup, only 30% of employees strongly agree that they are treated fairly by their company.

Achieving workplace fairness

Most companies seek to ensure that employees are treated fairly — and feel that they are — by teaching or training their managers to understand the discriminatory influence of unconscious biases, to recognize their own unconscious biases and to learn to prevent those biases from affecting the decisions they make about and the ways in which they relate to the people they supervise. Despite the ubiquitous nature of these “debiasing” efforts, however, little has been accomplished at increasing the diversity of and equity in companies’ senior leadership. As a result, W&U continue to see advantaged men enjoying an unchanging and disproportionate share of power, resources and status. Moreover, as the Gallup findings make clear, these debiasing efforts don’t provide employees with confident feeling they will be treated fairly as they seek advancement. This is hardly surprising. 

To expect employees to believe they will be fairly treated because their managers have undergone anti-bias training is unrealistic. Resting such a belief on the supposed good will, objectivity and knowledgeability of fallible human beings is too thin a reed to support such a fragile attitude. Employees will have justified confidence in the fairness of their workplaces only when they see that those workplaces have structural features — established, well-functioning personnel systems, processes and practices — that prevent their managers’ decisions from being made because of favoritism, lack of knowledge or simple arbitrariness. As Robert Livingston of the Harvard Kennedy School puts the point, to build employees’ confidence in workplace fairness, companies need to “focus on actions and behaviors rather than hearts and minds.”

Companies must give employees good reasons to trust in the fairness of the personnel decision-making process — the process by which decisions are made about hiring; assignments, promotions, compensation and senior leadership. If these decisions are easily influenced by managers’ arbitrary preferences, discriminatory stereotypes, and unjustified expectations, employees will quickly recognize that their career advancement is uncertain regardless of their ability and hard work. They will know (or fear) that preference will be given to advantaged men because they are assumed by their managers (consciously or unconsciously) to be better than W&U at performing demanding workplace tasks, fulfilling challenging responsibilities and exercising stressful leadership roles.

Busting inclusion stereotypes

This situation will change only when employees know there are effective structural protections against such unjustified assumptions influencing personnel decisions. In other words, employees need — and deserve — to have a solid basis for believing that their managers’ decisions will not be made in biased, arbitrary or discriminatory ways. It is not that managers are prone intentionally to favor advantaged men or to disfavor W&U. Rather, it is that stereotypes and discriminatory assumptions live in all of our unconscious minds, untouched by our conscious awareness. Thus, when managers can make personnel decisions by relying on their subjective discretion, they are inevitably influenced by:

  • Their preference to work with, support and advance people who are like them (affinity bias)
  • Their expectation that advantaged men will perform more effectively than W&U in roles requiring independence, decisiveness and leadership (gender, racial, ableism and sexual orientation biases)
  • Their inclination not to assign people who are not like them to high-profile teams, projects, responsibilities and undertakings (out-group bias)
  • Their reluctance to alter established staffing practices, team leadership patterns and role assignment arrangements (status quo bias)

Unfairness thrives when managers have the ability to decide personnel matters based on their gut instincts, strong feelings and confident expectations. And, so does the inequality between advantaged men and W&U. Indeed, as long as decision-makers’ subjective discretion is unchecked — and anti-bias training is not an effective check — organizations will not be able to effectively diversify their senior leadership or convince W&U that they can be justifiably confident of their future fair treatment.

A telling and troubling example of the discriminatory consequences of allowing unchecked subjective preferences to influence decision-making is a study of the choices science professors made about the likelihood of a woman and man becoming productive future scientists. The researchers surveyed a broad, nationwide sample of biology, chemistry and physics professors, asking them to evaluate an undergraduate science student who had applied for a position as a laboratory manager. All of the professors received exactly the same materials about the applicant, except that 50% of them received an application purportedly from a woman and 50% received an application purportedly from a man. The professors were asked to rate the student’s competence and hireability, suggest an appropriate starting salary, and indicate the amount of mentoring they would be willing to offer the student. Both female and male professors consistently judged the woman to be less competent and less suitable to be hired than the identically credentialed man. When the professors did offer a job to the woman, they specified a significantly lower salary and less career mentoring than they specified for the man.

The important finding of this study is not that individuals are biased, but that they are biased in consistent and similar ways — in favor of advantaged men and against W&U.

Personnel decision-making, therefore, inevitably will be discriminatory if the process by which the decisions are made do not prevent the influences of unconscious and discriminatory stereotypes, assumptions, and expectations.

Eliminating bias from personnel decision-making

Companies can substantially increase the likelihood more W&U will advance to senior leadership positions and employees will gain confidence in the fairness of their workplaces if there are visible, effective constraints on their managers’ personnel decision-making. In our forthcoming book, Beyond Bias, we suggest seven techniques companies can use to do this:

  1. Screen decision-makers from the social identities of the individuals about whom they are to make the personnel decisions.
  2. Explicitly specify the criteria on the basis of which decision-makers must make their decisions.
  3. Force decision-makers to use what Daniel Kahneman calls “slow thinking” in making their decisions.
  4. Eliminate discretion entirely from those aspects of decision-making where this can be done without diminishing the productive, innovative or effective operation of the workplace.
  5. Have personnel evaluations and personnel decision-making done by different groups of people.
  6. Assure that all personnel decision-making groups consist of a mix of men and W&U.
  7. Force personnel decisions to be made in writing and subject to review by a third party.

Personnel decision-making is the most obvious source of the inequality between advantaged men and W&U with respect to workplace power, resources, and status. The key to ending this inequality is to reduce or eliminate the possibility that such decision-making can be influenced by managers’ personal preferences — their discriminatory stereotypes, assumptions and expectations. These seven techniques can do this by effectively forcing such decisions to be made in ways that block consideration of inappropriate factors and foster consideration of appropriate ones.

Obviously, no company is expected to utilize all of these techniques, but every company should use some of them. Companies’ success in creating a strong and justified sense of fairness among their employees — and, hence, a feeling of true inclusion — depends on changing the manner in which managers make personnel decisions. This does not mean that companies need to make radical changes in the ways they operate, but it does mean they must reshape their decision-making process so that subjective discretion is no longer the major driver of these decisions.


Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris are communication and gender bias experts. Their third book, Beyond Bias: The PATH to End Gender Inequality at Work, will be released by Nicholas Brealey this May. Their previous books are: Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work and It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias that Built It.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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