What’s in a name? Bias in the workplace

March 13, 2017 1 COMMENTS

As Shakespeare wrote, “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But there is in fact much to a namea name can convey a sense of identity, culture, and family history. Recently, a series of viral tweets illustrated how much something as simple as a name could affect an individual’s employment.  Business woman versus man corporate ladder career concept vector illustration

A man and his female coworker conducted an experiment whereby they switched their e-mail signatures for two weeks. The series of tweets describes the man’s struggle to gain clients’ respect when using his female coworker’s name.

The experiment started when, because of a shared inbox, the man accidentally e-mailed a client with his female coworker’s signature line. He received a lot of pushback and attitude from the client. Upon realizing the mix-up with the e-mail signature , he switched back to his name and continued communicating in the same way with the client. He said he noticed an immediate improvement and positive reception from the client when he reverted to his real name. The man claimed his advice to the client never changed, only the fact that he was signing the e-mails with a man’s name instead of a woman’s name.

So the coworkers decided to switch names for two weeks. The man described his negative experience using his female coworker’s name, tweeting that everything he asked or suggested was questioned and that one client even asked if he was single. Meanwhile, he reported his female coworker had the most productive weeks of her career. The man stated he learned his female coworker had to convince clients to respect her, whereas he had an “invisible advantage” as a man. The woman also wrote her own account of the experiment and described sexism that many women face in the workplace.

While this is only one account, and by no means a scientific study, it is an interesting reminder to be conscious of gender bias and other biases in the workplace. Other Twitter users chimed in agreeing with this experience, and adding their own experiences where they had been concerned about how others would perceive them because of their name. For example, some Twitter users described concerns with how employers would perceive their names on their resumes. Some wondered if they should change their names to have a greater likelihood of success in obtaining employment because of unconscious biases.

Unconscious bias is a huge issue in the workplace and can affect who is hired, promoted, and valued at work. Discussing issues like biases can help bring the issue to light and create a company culture that acknowledges the problem and improves decision-making.

The power of habit and HR policies

January 23, 2017 1 COMMENTS

At the start of a new year, many individuals set goals and resolutions, hoping to change bad habits or form new ones. Exercising, eating healthy, reading more books, learning something new, and spending more time with family or friends are all common resolutions. 

But many of these well-intentioned goals and resolutions fall off days, weeks, or even months after people resolve to stick with them. After about three weeks into the New Year, how are your goals and resolutions coming along?

If you’ve found you haven’t been hitting the gym quite as hard as you’d planned, or that you’ve been unable to resist those sugary treats you vowed to give up, you may personally benefit from picking up the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The book delves deep into the science behind our habits and how to transform them.

In addition to focusing on how individuals can change habits, however, the book also explores how institutional habits can change in huge companies. Perhaps your organization has also started out the year by setting goals for tasks to accomplish this year. However, just as changing habits can be difficult on an individual level, changing habits and company culture on an institutional level can be even more challenging.

The book discusses how focusing on certain so-called “keystone habits” can help transform other areas of an organization. For example, in one case study, the book delves into how a new CEO of a huge international company transformed the entire organization, its habits, and ultimately its bottom line, all by focusing on safety. Safety was a keystone habit that management, employees, and the union could get behind. By focusing on changing safety habits to make the workplace safer, employees and management rallied around a common goal. In doing so, the company changed its safety policies and encouraged a culture of open communication. By demonstrating that the company was serious about hearing feedback from employees on how to improve safety, employees began to feel comfortable sharing other ideas as well, such as ways to increase efficiency. Soon, the company had both dramatically reduced injuries and increased efficiency, and in turn profits soared.

Now is a good time to seriously evaluate and audit company HR policies to determine not only if they comply with the law, but also if they contribute to good habits and company culture. If not, it may be time to attempt to find ways to transform those habits. I recommend adding The Power of Habit to your “to read” list both to benefit you personally, and to benefit your organization.

Mila Kunis’ open letter on gender bias at work

November 29, 2016 0 COMMENTS

Many people know actor Mila Kunis for her role in the TV series “That ’70s Show” and her film roles in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the drama Black Swan. Kunis has recently been in the headlines for her open letter on sexism in Hollywood and the workplace entitled, “You’ll Never Work in This Town Again…” originally posted here.Accusation. Sad woman looking down fingers pointing at her

In the letter, Kunis discusses some of her personal experiences, including being told by a producer that she would never work in Hollywood again after she refused to pose semi-naked on the cover of a men’s magazine to promote a film. Kunis explained that she felt objectified and that the threat that her career would suffer because of her refusal embodied the fear that many women face with gender bias in the workplace. She explained her view about how many women feel–that if they speak up against gender bias, their livelihoods will be threatened. Because of her career success and financial ability, Kunis explained she is fortunate to be in a position where she can stand up against gender bias and bring it to light when she experiences it, but recognized that many women may not be able to do so.

The letter also discusses the fact that a pay gap still exists between women and men. In Kunis’ view, this is one of the ways women’s contributions are undervalued in the workplace. She also highlighted that subtle gender bias can be imperceptible or undetectable to those who share the bias and that women may face “microaggressions” that devalue their contributions at work. For example, Kunis cited a time when a big producer referred to her as “[o]ne of the biggest actors in Hollywood and soon to be Ashton’s wife and baby momma!!!” Kunis wrote that describing her in relationship to a successful man and her ability to bear children reduced her value and ignored her contributions.

It’s important to recognize blind biases that may occur in the workplace, just as employers also must recognize overt sexual harassment or sexism. As Kunis highlights in her letter, however, many people may be unaware of their blind biases and it’s important to address them and educate people on their biases. If employers don’t adapt and address sexist microaggressions, they risk losing talented women in the workplace. As Kunis concludes her letter, “I will work in this town again, but I will not work with you.”

Employers haunted by Halloween

October 31, 2016 0 COMMENTS

Happy Halloween! We hope you are getting only treats today and no tricks. But in keeping with the holiday spirit, today’s post highlights some unintended tricks employers may face from Halloween.    Pug dog with Halloween costume sleep on sofa

Many employers will have already hosted a Halloween office party or allowed employees to dress up today to celebrate, but the Halloween festivities, whether work-sponsored or not, can continue to haunt employers long after today. Below are several examples of problems employers encountered because of Halloween activities:

  • Last year, a college president sparked outrage after a photograph circulated on social media of him and other university staffer members at a Halloween party wearing brightly colored ponchos, sombreros, bushy mustaches, and holding maracas. Understandably, many people considered the costume offensive, resulting in a formal apology and a meeting with the university’s Office of Hispanic and Latino Initiatives.
  • Another incident last year involved two professors at another university, one of whom ultimately resigned following the incident. One of the professors wrote an e-mail in response to a request from a campus group that students avoid wearing insensitive costumes, saying that students should be allowed to wear any costume they wanted. The e-mail and other incidents at the school prompted hundreds of students and faculty to protest over perceived racial insensitivity.  The professor’s husband supported his wife’s e-mail and decided to take a sabbatical in the spring semester following the incident.
  • Our blog post last year highlighted several cases that arose from Halloween activities, including a case where an employee’s supervisor made an inappropriate comment about the employee’s fishnet stockings, a case where an employee’s provocative costume was offered by the defense in a sexual harassment case, a case where the plaintiff dressed as a cat, prompting a manager to comment that he wanted “that p***y,” and a case where a white office worker came to a party dressed in blackface.

Because Halloween falls on a Monday this year, many people celebrated over the weekend, and pictures of costumes and events are flooding social media. More pictures and costumes will follow after celebrations this evening. In addition to setting expectations for appropriate costumes to wear in the workplace, employers must be vigilant for problems that can result from employees’ costumes outside of work as well.  Employers should remind their employees that any harassing comments or gossip are inappropriate for the workplace and that engaging in such conduct can result in discipline.  Remembering these incidents and taking immediate action if any inappropriate behavior occurs will make Halloween and the weeks that follow a lot less scary.