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Leon Kaye headshot

How Implicit Bias May Be Hurting Your Bottom Line

By Leon Kaye

Implicit bias during the recruitment process and later, within a company’s offices, has long taken a toll on employees, especially among workers who do not feel well connected -- as if they have to work twice as hard to get half as far. More companies have committed themselves to eliminating bias as they recruit and retain talent, and a cottage industry of consultancies and thought leadership has grown and tries to find ways  to eliminate, or at least minimize, bias within the workplace.

To that end, a recent study suggests that while bias clearly takes a toll on employees, it also could hurt many companies’ bottom line as well.

New York-based Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) recently completed a report that started with in-person focus groups and web-based surveys involving 300 people from various multinational organizations. The result was a survey conducted by the University of Chicago online and over the telephone last fall, during which 3,500 interviews were completed. Participants shared information on how they assessed their overall potential, how they believed their supervisors assessed them on various elements of their jobs and what kind of feedback they received over time.

Analysts at CTI then segmented employees by what they described “talent cohorts.” The percentage of employees who reported that they were subjected to bias on the job ranged anywhere from 7.7 to 14.5 percent. At a first glance, those numbers many not seem outrageous. But then researchers assessed how bias can have an impact on an individual’s career momentum and negative effects on companies, they concluded that the impact of that bias escalates.

The study found that bias can accelerate burnout on the job, which CTI measured in several different ways. First, 33 percent of employees who perceive bias regularly felt alienated within the workplace. As a result, 34 percent said they had withheld potential ideas or solutions during the previous six months before they participated in the survey. Three-quarters said they were “not proud” to work for their employers, and 80 percent admitted that they did not refer professionals within their networks to work for their employers. Those who perceived bias offered those responses at a much higher rate than their counterparts who did not report any perceptions of bias within their companies.

Such bias, in turn, engenders what CTI describes as “bust-outs” resulting from burnout. Almost one-third of those same employees said they had a plan to leave their companies within a year; almost half said they had looked for a job during the previous six months.

The final cost, or in CTI’s phrasing, “blow-ups,” show where the headaches for a company can really manifest themselves. At least 5 percent said they had discussed their companies in a negative light on social media; 9 percent reported that they had purposely failed to follow through on an important assignment during the previous six months.

Not everyone who reviewed CTI’s methodology was a fan of the survey, including one Georgetown University researcher interviewed on Forbes. "It is usually the case that client and the supervisor assessments are rarely aligned," Sukari Pinnock said. "Bias is always in the mix — on both sides of the equation."

Analyzing self-assessments is always a slippery slope; after all, most employees and their managers look forward to annual reviews about as much as an upcoming dentist appointment. And how one writes one's self-assessment for their human resources file could vary from how they complete similar interviews for any research study. And how accurate are those employees’ descriptions of how they perform on the job? As one business school professor told my class years ago, “The fact is, we’re often not as good as we’d like to think we are.” One’s level of modesty may vary, depending on whether we are in a public setting or when we are filling out one of those 360 reviews in the hope of scoring a promotion and/or a raise.

Nevertheless, the perspective CTI’s survey offers is a warning to employers. While many jobseekers complain of a hyper-competitive job market, employers also say finding talent is an ongoing struggle. “Retention will be the biggest talent challenge of 2017,” said Forbes late last year. Meanwhile, more companies are becoming aware of the impact bias can have on their employees, and in turn they are taking steps such as sponsoring and mentoring programs in order to show that everyone has a fair chance to thrive within the organization. Elimination of bias obviously is about fairness and taking a stand – but pragmatically, it is also important for companies to address if they want to continue to thrive or even survive in the long term.

Image credit: Reyner Media/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye