“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” are words broadly attributed to Albert Einstein. Another translation is: a problem cannot be solved at the same level at which it was created.
Let’s apply this wisdom to this world of DEI and talent management decisions: You cannot solve the issue of bias and inequity at the level of individual decisions. Instead, you have to zoom out to the level of organizational patterns.
As Pulsely’s Co-founder and DEI Director Betsy Bagley asserts, “As with many talent management decisions - each one can be explained but it's only when we dial out and look at the patterns that we can see where potential bias exists.”
Without even knowing it, well-intending people make unconscious bias-based decisions every day that perpetuate inequity in your organization. Each individual decision may seem justified, rational, objective and consciously discerning. But it’s the cumulative impact of these decisions that spells out the patterns of unconscious bias. What is invisible and seemingly benign at the level of individual decisions is revealed in plain sight at the level of patterns: this is what makes bias insidious. You simply cannot see it when inside of it.
Until leadership can fundamentally grasp this, every DEI conversation that happens in your organization will only run in circles. Why? Because you’re chasing the problem at the same level of thinking at which it was created. If you engage in the debate at the level of the problem (defending decision-making), you won’t move into solution space, despite your best efforts.
Equal Opportunity from Theory to Practice
Nearly ten years ago, researchers in Harvard Business Review called out that the only real progress in diversity and creating more equal opportunities happened between 1964 and 1980, as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, private sector monitoring by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and strong CEO-backed affirmative action. But since 1980 - with backlash and deregulation that reduced monitoring of equal opportunities - government pressure waned, private sector commitment followed, progress stagnated and integration regressed in workplaces.
Instead, companies moved to “diversity management" - which does not create accountability around applicants and employees being treated equitably - rather than advancing equal opportunity. Alone, diversity management activities such as training, public diversity commitments and defensive legal responses do nothing to promote racial and gender integration or advance equal employment opportunities. The researchers cite factors such as ignoring patterns and failing to monitor progress as key reasons why organizations still fail to create more equitable opportunities.
As an example, Wells Fargo recently suspended their policy that required managers to interview diverse candidates (one woman, one person of color) before offering someone a job after former employees reported incidents of “fake interviews” that sometimes even occurred after the job recipient was already identified. Not only does the policy not build on HBR research that if there’s only one woman or underrepresented individual in a final candidate pool, they have zero chances to be hired, but it also echoes of the tick-box "diversity management” approach that doesn’t create accountability for outcomes.
Even with the new pressures and opportunities of today, companies whose business depends on setting benchmarks and measuring results bewilderingly still negate real accountability when it comes to creating equitable workplaces.
Identifying the Patterns in Hiring and Promotion Decisions
At the level of decisions, unconscious bias causes us to act in ways that reinforce stereotypical notions, even when doing so runs counter to our values. Speedy mental shortcuts and a multitude of split-second judgements rule our perception at the level of decisions. It’s not even scratching the surface to highlight a couple ways that decisions become documented patterns at every level of talent management:
In candidate selection: A white-sounding name gets 50% more interview callbacks than an African-sounding name. Disclosing a physical disability halfs the call-back rate.
In interviewing: Decisions are made about social class, competence and pay within seconds of hearing speech patterns and pronunciation. Assumptions are made about black women’s professionalism and competency based on hair styles.
In promotion: Though they hold the most graduate degrees, Asian women get blocked from promotion based on narrow perceptual leadership norms. Women and people of color are more often promoted to CEO when firms are underperforming only to be thrown off the glass cliff and replaced by white men.
In dismissal: Women CEOs are more likely to be forced out than men (and more quickly), as recently exemplified by Sonia Syngal at Gap Inc. In the first half of 2022, the female push-out score was 6.8 for women versus 5.1 for men, a widening gap.
So unless you elevate your vision to the level of patterns, apparently “solid” talent management decisions will continue to sabotage equity and business effectiveness by reflecting bias. But what you do not measure cannot be managed, and sometimes - not even seen clearly.
Identifying patterns means measuring what is going on in your organization - beginning with diversity data at every level and then going deeper to the dynamics behind it.
At Pulsely, we’ve found that patterns can be identified both in the measurable outcomes at every stage of talent management as well as in the measurable differences in employee experiences by group at every stage of the employee lifecycle. Together the two provide insights into the equity-defeating patterns at play in your culture.
Workforce analytics identifies how different groups progress in your organization: from hiring to time in position to promotion rates to attrition. This reveals where equity and inclusion are hindered at a pattern level, creating leaks in the talent pipeline.
Workplace inclusion metrics identify the gaps in how different employee segments experience your workplace, highlighting problematic inequities in employee experiences that are impacting your workplace outcomes. We then tie that to Performance Indicators that reveal what factors are impacting your pipeline and business the most.
With this and other datasets, organizations can pinpoint the patterns - or cumulative effect of individual decisions - and what is contributing to these patterns, and address inequities in talent management and progression from that level. You may see things you don’t want to see, as with any patterns, but then you’re empowered to act.
Then, you can measure the progress of DEI initiatives put in place to disrupt the patterns that are hindering equity in your organization.
Intentional Patterns Create More Equitable Outcomes
Equitable talent management would be transformational for most organizations. The best DEI data collection will not matter if you don’t actively apply the insights and learning to inform and implement strategic changes. The best strategic action plan will not deliver if there is not accountability for achieving progress against the goals.
To move the dial in creating real equitable outcomes, organizations must create this intentional pattern: ownership, responsibility and accountability for advancing equitable outcomes at leadership and management levels. Consequential accountability means integrating DEI measures into performance evaluation and requires senior leaders to make meaningful progress against DEI goals as a criteria of their own career progression: and it accelerates racial and gender parity in leadership. It’s time to return to integrity of word, accountability and effectiveness.
Elevating the tracking to the macro level, from decisions to patterns, is one step. From there, every leader knows that transformation happens when you take ownership not only for the vision you hold, but for the real changes that will get you there.