July 2018 | Point of View

Tackling unconscious bias and its impact on the workplace.

Inclusion and diversity are embedded in our core values and are vital to our firm’s ability to understand client issues and deliver differentiated solutions. As we’ve grown to nearly 1,000 people in 10 offices across the United States, fostering an inclusive environment becomes more challenging—but all the more important. 

As part of a journey to strengthen our culture  of inclusion, we began writing quarterly articles designed to stimulate conversation about relevant and sometimes challenging topics. The idea is that healthy and open dialogue is an essential prerequisite to breaking down the barriers to inclusion. We are energized by the feedback to date and excited to continue this conversation into a second year. 

In the last article, I reflected on an article I read recently about the “silent” challenge of creating equal networking opportunities in and outside of the workplace. There is no shortage of coverage on the topic of equality in the workplace and its impact  on inclusion—and a recent article in the Harvard Business Review has also caught my eye. “For Women and Minorities to Get Ahead, Managers Must Assign Work Fairly” proposes that businesses must try new techniques for addressing diversity and inclusion, including systemic changes to the way they run. In particular, the article focuses on processes for allocating tasks and projects to people. 

I agree with the article’s premise that inequitable distribution of work assignments—both “office housework” (routine tasks such as taking notes or ordering food or coffee for a meeting) and “glamour work” (prime projects that can accelerate one’s career)—can undermine efforts to build an inclusive environment. Any time we fall back on “the way we’ve always done it” and fail to think broadly or creatively when making a business decision, whether assigning work or planning an out-of-office networking activity, we run the risk of fostering inequality. 

I also agree with the article’s assertion that women and people of color are often affected, but I don’t think they are the only ones impacted by unequal work assignments. As Dr. Steven Robbins describes  later  in this article, anyone who is treated as an “outsider” may be missing out on the best opportunities. In fact, I couldn’t agree more with the article’s conclusion, which states that a “fairer assignment system isn’t good only for women and people of color. An introverted white male, who might not be the first one to raise his hand, will get a fairer shot at the at the best assignments. People raised with a no-bragging ethos, who wouldn’t knock down their boss’s door to pitch themselves, will also get a fairer shot.” I believe that point should have been raised at the beginning of the article and not the end given the importance to the article’s (and my) perspectives 

Assigning office housework 

From my observations in our organization, the disparity in assigning office housework such as meeting-related tasks (taking  notes,  ordering  lunch) isn’t so much a women-to-men issue as it is a tenure or seniority issue. It is easy to lapse into a habit of asking junior consultants to perform such tasks while their more seasoned counterparts do the talking, seeing this as the “important work” reserved only for senior team members. 

This is an example of unconscious bias, and it sends a signal that senior team members are more valuable to the team. Each of us needs to learn about the concept of unconscious bias and how it plays into scenarios like this, then commit to being more mindful about our decisions and actions, such as how we assign tasks (see sidebar). While we need to challenge our junior team members and trust them with stretch assignments, we can also make sure we are emphasizing the important core consulting skills that these “brilliant basics” help build. 

I do agree with the article’s observation that women, in general, are more likely to volunteer for tasks such as taking notes—often because they feel it is expected of them. I have an easy solution for overcoming that: Don’t ask for volunteers. Decide on your own who will be responsible for taking notes and establish a process for rotating this task equitably among members of your team. Then, hold people accountable for taking the task seriously. For example, don’t let your male senior manager off the hook because he insists he’s not a “details guy.” It can also help to remind your team, from time to time, that taking notes is not a menial task but rather a critical part of keeping a complex initiative on track to achieve its goals. 

In our organization, “housework” also refers to an array of practice development projects, such as developing offerings or writing articles and case studies. We expect our people to spend time on these initiatives, and often we ask them to do so when they are not currently working at full capacity on a client project. While these projects are important for growing our business, it doesn’t take much to make a consultant feel like he or she has been chosen to perform less- desirable or valuable work. Here, it is important for leaders to help people understand and communicate the value that they are producing by delivering these projects. 

Business development (BD) is a similarly time- consuming and vital task in our profession. The work involved is not always glamorous, but it is an essential skill for any consultant who wants to move up in the organization. While it is easier to rely on the same people (“insiders”) over and over—after all, in sales, experience often breeds success, and, in a proposal situation, we want to do everything we can to gain an advantage—it is important to build in diversity every time we approach a BD pursuit opportunity. This helps us bring fresh new ideas and the best of our collective thinking to a client’s challenge, which in turn produces a better and more competitive proposal. By rotating responsibilities on BD teams and exposing new people to the process, we are also providing them with the opportunity to build essential soft skills for career growth. 

Assigning glamour work 

For West Monroe, I think the more significant issue raised in the article is the one around equitable consideration for glamour work—big or innovative projects with important clients that can be key to advancing one’s career. We occasionally hear concerns that people with the best connections get the best project opportunities. 

We are keenly aware of that concern (as discussed in my previous article), and we are taking steps as a company to address it. For example, we have established resource and practice operations (RPO) roles who, among other responsibilities, help support project staffing. This helps us assign work more equitably across the country and makes sure we are growing the base of consultants who have experience in key disciplines. It also provides us with data to track our project staffing better and to hold our leaders accountable for equitable assignments. 

Similar to the point I made above about business development, it is easy for us as leaders to fall back   on “insiders” for important client service assignments because we have developed confidence in their ability to deliver. I think spreading responsibilities around is essential. Giving people something new instead of the same old tasks is good for them. It helps them grow and makes them better consultants.  It is also good for our clients because it injects new and more well- rounded thinking into our solutions. 

So how do you rotate new people into those plum projects and still be confident that the team is going   to deliver? One tactic I have found useful is to create “shadowing” tasks and activities that enable a broader group of people to gain skills that position them better for prime roles. Another relevant tactic is to break complex roles into smaller pieces so that more people have a chance to perform meaningful parts of a larger program. 

In summary, it is not easy to fit one more thing to think about into our busy work days, but this is an area where we must make a point of being mindful in our decision making, especially as we grow and as our offices and teams become larger. It can have a strong impact on our sense of inclusion—not only for women and people of color, but for anyone who has found themselves feeling like an outsider at some point. 

More importantly, we must have the courage to hold ourselves and each other accountable for making the right, and not just the easy, decisions so that we create the best experiences for our people as well as the best solutions for our clients—whether in work assignments or any other area that affects our sense of inclusion. We are serious about building the next generation of leaders at West Monroe and this is an opportunity to prove that to our consultants. 

Strengthening our culture of inclusion is a team effort, and we want to share additional perspectives from across our team and community. This quarter’s contribution comes from Dr. Steven Robbins, founder and owner of S.L. Robbins and Associates, a consulting firm on issues of human behavior based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dr. Robbins works with West Monroe on confronting unconscious bias in the workplace.

Dr. Steven Robbins 

How does unconscious bias influence work assignments? 

The concept of “insiders” and “outsiders” is at the crux of inclusion issues, such as perceived fairness of assignments. Our brains are programmed to classify someone as an insider or an outsider, and that influences our subsequent actions and decisions. We tend to treat insiders better than outsiders and give them the benefit of the doubt. Say a company has an open IT position and has two good candidates, a man and a woman. Both have good backgrounds but neither one has the necessary experience for the job. Unconscious bias will compel the manager to consider giving the insider the “chance to prove yourself,” while asking the outsider—who, in the technology arena, is often the woman—to “come back when you have more experience.” 

How can we correct this? 

One of the most common tactics for teaching employees about unconscious bias is seminars and workshops, but those types of activities will fail if people do not practice what they learned. Participants have to commit to practicing what they learn in a workshop. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard. 

What should managers practice? 

First and foremost, we need to practice being mindful when we make decisions, such as the hiring decision I described above. Mindful engagement involves three “Rs”: recognition, reflection, and response.

  • Recognition is self-awareness of our own thoughts, feelings, and physiological state. 
  • Reflection is the practice of considering options in a situation. 
  • Response is how we respond after giving ourselves the options. 

In the IT example, a mindful approach will give fair consideration to both candidates, including thinking about what the organization could do to help both candidates evolve into the role. 

How can leaders help eliminate bias from work assignments? 

Unless people have internal motivation, they need an outside force to help them address bias in work assignments. Leadership is a critical outside force that influences the right behaviors in several ways. First, senior leaders are the ultimate role models in an organization, and desired behaviors must start with them. Furthermore, senior leaders can enforce accountability by instituting process changes, such as adding upward feedback or surveys to performance evaluations to encourage certain behaviors. Leaders are also responsible for creating an open-door environment in which people feel comfortable raising issues related to fairness of assignments. 

On that note, what should people do when they perceive bias in work assignments? 

If you feel slighted in project or task assignments, focus on establishing relationships with people with whom you can be open about the topic. Then, ask questions such as “Why wasn’t I given the assignment?” or “Can you help mentor me so that I can better position myself for that kind of assignment in the future?” 

Ready to get started? Explore opportunities at West Monroe.