At first, I could only come up with a few names. The longer I thought about it, the longer the list grew…and grew. For some, I could only remember faces. For others, I could remember only the meeting or the circumstance. Some were good friends. When I would think back to the individual conversations, sometimes my heart would warm and I would smile as I recalled their personalities and our shared experiences. Then my heart would sink as I recalled their painful experiences and trials.
It was a list of all the people who were overlooked, under-promoted, stereotyped or somehow limited in their advancement in the corporate world during my career. Some I was able to help. Others, the system was too strong and the undermining too subtle to overcome. Many were African-Americans. Some were Latino or Asian. Some were women. But none were white males.
Prejudice shows up in corporate America in a much more subtle way. The daily slights don’t hit the news. The discrimination is hard to prove and often accompanied with perfectly logical explanations. We have policies to ensure everyone has “equal opportunity”. But the bias remains…for many, unconsciously.
One meeting is embedded in my memory as a critical lesson for me as a leader. I was a senior leader in a team of other senior leaders. We were sitting in a meeting, reviewing the most recent round of job placements, which would end up in layoffs for those not receiving a job in the interviewing process. One man was to be out of work because he was being repatriated from another country. Another woman was less well known to the people in the room. Another was well known and liked, but just an “average” performer. One other was agreed to be “high potential” but was being caught up in the wrong process at the wrong time and would not have a job. Everyone agreed the situation was unfortunate.
Then someone mentioned “Tom” (not his real name).
“We need to do something about Tom. He’s not going to have a job if we don’t take care of Tom.”
Tom was a good guy, an average performer, well known to those in the room and “looked like” the majority of the decision makers.
Suddenly it struck me. Many of the others (not all, but a noticeable number) who would end up out of a job were minorities or women.
“Wait”, I said.
“We just discussed all these other people who will end up without jobs, yet we want to take care of Tom. Has anyone noticed that the others seem to be following a pattern? Most of them are minorities or women.”
There was silence in the room. They all went back and looked at the list. It was like a lightbulb came on. They didn’t even realize that they had, with what I believe was not malintent, overlooked some talented people, and given favor to the guy that looked like them. One of my colleagues noticed and said,
“Wow! We need to start over.”
From that point on the process took a very different tact and I’m proud to say that we came up with a much fairer, more balanced outcome.
But here’s what it took:
- Someone to have a focus on diversity and a scrutinizing eye on the data.
- A conscious awareness that we can all fall into favoring others “like us”.
- A degree of skepticism about an otherwise “fair” process.
- A willingness of the leaders to step back and consider that they may have unconscious bias.
- Someone to throw caution to the wind to call attention to the behavior.
I’m not claiming to be a hero here. I felt like I was an advocate for diversity and had some awareness of unconscious bias. But I was near the end of my corporate career. I was no longer concerned about “climbing the ladder”; I was very senior and my reputation was pretty secure. If I had been younger, more junior, more concerned about pleasing senior management, would I have spoken up? I hope so, but the reality is, I’ll never know.
I do know this: If we don’t have a true, informed leadership focus on diversity, if we fail to consider the fact that there is unconscious bias in the workplace and if we assume that our processes will always produce fair outcomes, then we will miss opportunities to promote and develop talent. We will miss those who are underrepresented, who are lesser known, who are “not like us”.
All those people on my “list” were very talented. They had hopes, dreams and they wanted to believe that their dreams were just as achievable as anyone else’s. As leaders, it’s our job to make sure that every person has an opportunity to come to work and develop their lives and their careers to their full potential. We all need the opportunity to achieve our dreams.