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Do You Discriminate?

Do You Discriminate?

No one likes getting asked this question and we like answering it even less.

When we do answer, there is a tendency for us to immediately think in terms of “me” and “everyone else”. So, of course, we can answer it in good conscience and say “Yes, discrimination does still exist, but, I don’t discriminate.”

Please know, from my perspective, that is one of the least accurate statements ever uttered. Unfortunately, it is true, discrimination does still exist and, unfortunately, it is true you discriminate. So do I.

I hate accepting the accuracy of this, the implication that I discriminate. And, who am I to tell you that you discriminate?

The type of discrimination that gets a lot of press tends to be anything that can be sensationalized, rightly or wrongly, as racism. However, the type of discrimination for which we as human resource professionals must be ever vigilant is more subtle. It is the conscious-unconscious gap – the gap between what we might intentionally choose and choices we make based on things we don’t realize.

We are very aware of not allowing intentional choices to be influenced by race, skin color, heritage, gender, religion or any of many other “legislated” categories — or many other criteria that are not legislated, yet are discussed and considered in popular equal opportunity discussions, such as sexual orientation or perceived socio-economic status. What about other types of discrimination? And, how do we even know it exists? Our role as human resource professionals is to keep a sharp eye out for — to actively look for — any type of discrimination or subtle favoritism that can compromise your company’s business or ethical integrity.

My first exposure to subtle discrimination took place while working for a large regional hospital a number of years ago. I had prior experience with affirmation action and equal opportunity plans and programs, generally focused on race and ethnicity. At the hospital we were looking at ways to improve leadership performance by examining communication styles. The premise being, if we assess and then improve communication of leaders we will then improve their performance and improve the company’s performance.

We won’t debate the validity of this premise; suffice it to say, an extensive program was undertaken to assess the communication style of over 400 leaders, placing each leader into one of five primary communication styles. For the purpose of our discussion we will refer to each style as one through five, with one being on the introverted side and five being on the extroverted side.

A concurrent human resource initiative was drawing to a close, looking at a general succession plan for leaders. In simple terms, subordinate leaders were rated on a scale of ready or not ready for advancement by their immediate supervisor.

The communication style program continued and after the assessment phase moved into a training phase, and all 400 leaders were subsequently trained to understand their style and how to communicate with others based on individual communication style.

The first eye opener for me occurred when I noticed something interesting in the data. One might expect there to be a standard distribution of leaders across the various communication styles. However, this was not the case.

Though I am paraphrasing the data, the general results were:

Style One — 10% Style Two — 80% Style Three — 5% Style Four — 4% Style Five — 1%

I looked at the details of the data, and all senior leaders, directors and above, were style two.  Entry level leaders and supervisors were in style three, four or five. Style one was composed of a mix of entry and mid level leaders.

The succession plan data, though a very separately planned initiative and not planned or conducted in coordination with the communications style program, presented results that crossed with the communications assessment in interesting ways. No leaders with a communication style of one, three, four or five were rated as ready for advancement. They were all found lacking. Only style two leaders were rated as ready for advancement.

I was curious. Since I had access to all the hiring decision data for the past number of years, actually, for a prior ten year period of time, I did a quick analysis to see if my curiosity was warranted. I wondered if there was any relationship between who hired and promoted and the communication style of those hired or promoted.

I must admit that I did not run my investigation in a scientific way, and have no true statistical findings that would withstand the scrutiny of a mathematical analysis however, the relationships were too coincidental to ignore. Of course there was a relationship between the communication style of those hired or promoted. You knew there would be. It wasn’t 1:1, but it was there. (A curious aside, the variances tended to occur when a group or panel was involved in the final decision for a hire or promotion, opposed to the hiring decision being made by a single individual.)

I thought it was very clear that discrimination was taking place. If the selection and promotion results were sensitive enough to discriminate based on communication style, then what chance did anyone have who differed in more obvious ways? Discrimination goes beyond the intentional violation of legislated protections.

Discrimination still exists, sometimes in very subtle ways. Look for it. It isn’t hard to find, you just have to look for it. (Yes, I put some efforts in place to respond to my findings and improve how hiring and promotional decisions were made.) After sharing my discovery with senior leadership, there was a curious response. I was concerned about the validity of leadership selection; senior leaders were concerned about diversity of thought style. Both concerns perhaps valid.

Please understand I am not suggesting the leaders at this hospital were intentionally discriminating; however, I am suggesting they may not have been “intentionally not discriminating”.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Blink – The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” presents similar insights to us. His writings are from approximately a decade after my personal observations. He tells us about what is called the Warren Harding Error; the selection of a person based on superficial qualities. He suggests that Warren Harding was elected President because he “…looked like a presidential candidate…” He would make a “great looking President.” Gladwell goes on to write “He was, most historians agree, one of the worst presidents in American history.”

What does this have to do with discrimination? Everything. To discriminate in an inappropriate manner is to base a decision on superficial characteristics that are not related to the qualities desired or required to perform a role, function or a job.

As you give some thought to the complexities of discrimination, consider these words from Gladwell “…our attitudes toward things like race or gender operate on two levels. First of all, we have our conscious attitudes. This is what we choose to believe. These are our stated values, which we use to direct our behavior deliberately. … [we also have a] second level of attitude…on an unconscious level — the immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before we’ve had time to think.”

Being aware of this second level of discrimination is one thing, and again, it is easy to dismiss it and say “not me”. The challenge for us is two fold.

First, find out if you have this second level of discriminatory associations within you. And understand how strong it is. You can do an objective personal assessment, look in the mirror or ask others to tell you what they see or hear from you. And, you can go to https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ and follow the links to take one or more assessments.

These tests measure the conscious-unconscious divergences much more convincingly than has been possible with previous methods, and is called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT for short.  They cover numerous topics such as weight, religion, disability, sexuality, skin tone, and other characteristics.

The second challenge is to look intentionally within your practice, your work place, your plans and programs for unintentional discrimination, the conscious-unconscious gap.

Are you willing to take a close, personal review of how you make decisions?

Are you in a position to lead a discussion at your organization about conscious-unconscious gap?

Are you concerned with how the unconscious decision can affect other important decisions within your organization?

Are you willing to conduct a risk assessment to uncover the subtle discriminations that might be taking place?

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Philip Espinosa partners with people to deliver value: People | Partnerships | Value serves as his tag line. As a strategic human resources leader, he believes that service starts with the customer. His book "Deliver Excellent Customer Service with a SNAP” helps others drive customer engagement using simple and consistent communication strategies. A second book titled "Focus On Your Success - 24 Simple Insights To Drive Daily Achievement" (ebook) helps working professionals view their daily choices through a different perspective. In addition to his writing, Philip works with strategic human capital initiatives and has delivered successful results over a career spanning more than 25 years.

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