Study shows workplace bias comes early identifying high-potential employees

The notion of the glass ceiling – an invisible but systemic barrier that prevents #women from rising to the top of organizations – has been supplemented in recent years by the idea of a broken rung much lower down in the organizational hierarchy. It highlights the inability of women to take the first step up to front-line #management at rates equal to men, despite being equally represented in entry-level positions and holding more university degrees than men.

A new study offers additional insight, suggesting the crack in the broken rung comes early with the selection of high-potential #employees and other possible future leaders. And that’s important because while some companies monitor diversity in promotion rates, that safeguard may come too late. Scrutiny needs to shift to steps earlier in the process leading up to promotion, beginning with the way organizations identify those with high potential.

Pinsight, a leadership development firm, working with researchers from Purdue and George Mason universities in the United States, collected data from 129 organizations that employ a total of more than half a million people in a variety of industries. They found 8 per cent brought relatively objective data to that key decision, using standardized talent assessments such as measures of ability, personality, or other job-relevant attributes.

More commonly, managers pick high-potential candidates without such objective tools, acting according to deep, unconscious biases. They might wield assessment tools such as the 9-box grid, which rates growth potential and performance expectations, or more standard performance evaluations, but those are not truly objective and so become expressions of the manager’s predispositions rather than protections against bias.

The researchers, testing 328 managers, found them on average three times more likely to select men as having potential for leadership than women.

“We found that male managers show stronger unconscious bias than female managers. When identifying high-potential employees, male managers are five times more likely to select men than women. Interestingly, female managers show the same direction of bias but the bias is weaker: Female managers are two times more likely to select men than women as high-potentials,” they write in their Repairing the Broken Rung report.

To stop this in your organization, obtain data about your current practices for identifying #highpotentialemployees, emerging #leaders, and succession pools. Monitor the balance in these programs with the same thoroughness and care as hiring decisions. How transparent are your current processes? Are decisions rooted in feelings and whims or a validated list of characteristics for the position?

The researchers recommend bias training for all but warn that can only increase awareness of the problem, not solve it. So that must be supplemented by formulating criteria for high-potential and successor selection based on research data and insisting managers use those during the nomination process. “What characteristics best predict success in leadership roles at your company? Educate managers on the criteria and what potential performance looks like for future leaders. Use the criteria in the nomination and selection process, and ask managers to provide evidence that their #candidates meet the criteria,” the report recommends.

Finally, introduce blind auditions. When symphony orchestras started judging candidates who were performing behind a screen, the selection of women increased. Similarly you should try job simulations rated by third-party assessors, which the researchers found are fair to men and women and all races. “Seeing all employees in the same standardized situation and using a validated set of criteria, you will arrive at a more objective evaluation of their leadership potential and readiness,” they conclude.

You may also be wise to dial down workloads and work hours in your company. When asked to help a global consulting firm struggling with developing female partners, Robin Ely, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Irene Padavic, a professor of sociology at Florida State University, found women held back by the crushing culture of overwork at the firm.“The unnecessarily long hours were detrimental to everyone, we explained, but they disproportionately penalized women because, unlike men, many of them take accommodations, which exact a steep career price,” they write in Harvard Business Review, referring to changes in their work hours to handle responsibilities outside the workplace, such as child and elder care. “For the firm to address its gender problem, it would have to address its long-hours problem.”

The cool reaction they received from management led to further study of the defensiveness in organizations protecting the workplace culture of long hours. While interviews indicated the long hours were detrimental to both men and women, the tendency was to ignore the inefficient work practices that led to the overwork and fall back to the rhetoric of necessity, and so perpetuating gender disparities. The academics note that “allowed everybody to avoid confronting the core problem. As a result, two strongly held ideologies supporting the status quo remained in place: Long work hours are necessary, and women’s stalled advancement is inevitable.”

The long hours at major consultancies are legendary, but many firms also have long hours. Examine whether they are necessary and with that repair your broken rung, trying blind auditions. Gender imbalance may not be inevitable.


  • Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor, disagrees with the prevailing consensus that remote work is the wave of the future. He argues there are just too many disadvantages to working from home, notably that it’s a residential space without proper infrastructure. Only 5 per cent of the workforce was working remotely before COVID-19 and he doesn’t expect it to reach even 20 per cent in the long term.
  • McKinsey & Co. says that what is unknown about the coronavirus crisis may be beyond any situation seen in our professional lifetimes, with managers and boards feeling like they are only dealing with 5 per cent of the issues. Your goal therefore is not to have the best answer but to build the organizational capability to learn quickly why your answer may be wrong and pivot before competitors do.·
  • Chris Dyer, the founder and chief executive officer of background-check company PeopleG2, which has run over 100,000 virtual meetings, suggests paying attention to what he calls cockroaches and ostriches – both short, informal, single-issue meetings that can be called by anyone in the organization. If you have a cockroach in your bathroom you deal with it quickly – those meetings average seven minutes (and his company has about 38 a day). Ostrich meetings are when somebody feels their head is in the sand and they need help from others to get free.




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