Unconscious Bias Gets in the Way of Moving Up the Ladder

Does unconscious bias determine how roles and responsibilities are allocated at your company? Day to day organizational tasks make up the minutiae that keep an organization on its feet and running smoothly. Big ideas and high-level strategies guide companies in the right direction, but it is the tedious, administrative tasks that remain necessary to execute daily business. These tasks that drive daily business are referred to as “support-tasks,” because they often consist of smaller details, such as scheduling or organizing, that support high-level strategy. This is often in addition to the “fun” tasks often fall to women in the office: the birthday party planning, team lunch reservations, and passing around the get-well-soon cards.  

A 2018 study by the Harvard Business Review determined that women are most often asked to take on–or volunteer for–these “non-promotable” tasks. This is often a direct result of unconscious bias and a lack of predefined protocols that would encourage even-handed task management.

What is a “support-task?”

Support-tasks are the necessary tedium that comes along with business operations. These tasks and the people carrying them out are often the unsung heroes of organizational success. Support-tasks are often referred to as “non-promotable” tasks because they are not covered in a performance evaluation, nor outlined in a career development plan.

Picture a three-person meeting: two men and one woman, all of equal rank. Prior to the scheduled meeting, the female employee books the conference room, writes and disseminates the agenda, sets the stage, and maybe grabs a few snacks from the break room. While she is setting the stage, her male peers are given extra time to brainstorm, set up a plan or strategy, and bounce off a few ideas with each other before the actual meeting begins. Does this scenario sound familiar? You’re not alone. 

In field and laboratory settings, women are more likely to reluctantly volunteer for support-tasks than men, according to HBR. They are also asked to carry out such tasks more frequently, and less likely to turn them down than their male counterparts.

Consequences of unconscious bias in task management

Who gets assigned these “non-promotable” tasks has a dramatic effect on who gets ahead in the organization. Unconscious biases in assigning support tasks can:

  • Unfairly burden certain employees
  • Effect how certain team members are perceived
  • Limit that person’s opportunities for professional advancement and development 

When support-tasks are not evenly assigned, it leads to one person becoming “the organizer,” while the other team members are the “big idea” folks. 

Gender imbalance in task allocation across the board is one of the largest contributors to the gender equity gap that we still see at many organizational levels, from the bottom of the ladder up to the top. Despite the educational advances, general workplace culture shifts, and the legislative support that women have received over the past 20 years, promotional trajectories are still significantly slower for women than for men. The “support-task” role diminishes an employee’s visibility and sets a precedent for who will take on the “housekeeping” tasks in the future.

When it comes to career advancement, unconscious bias proliferates. Not only does it define who is assigned the “support-task,” but it also affects the level of scrutiny that certain employees receive. Studies have revealed that minority employees oftentimes have to work twice as hard as their white male counterparts to receive the same amount of praise. 

Dissecting the double standard

The Harvard Business Review has published data that demonstrates how black workers are subject to much higher levels of scrutiny from supervisors. There is often an unconscious expectation that a minority employee’s work will contain more errors or be of a lower quality than their white counterparts. This expectation may lead a supervisor to review work more closely, and spot errors that they might not identify if a white employee had made them, creating a vicious cycle in which supervisors will seek to reaffirm and renew their previous expectations. This is classic confirmation bias. Watch this short video that highlights this exact issue.

Unconscious bias in performance development can:

  • Lead us to overlook key contributors
  • Skew who gets promoted and who doesn’t
  • Demoralize team members making genuine contributions

When these unconscious biases proliferate throughout the company, it affects employee retention and hurts company culture. It is important that workers feel valued, respected, and utilized to their fullest potential. Any time you have different expectations based solely on gender or race, you have a culture issue on your hands.

How to minimize unconscious bias

The best way to minimize unconscious bias is through plans and procedures. Have a workflow outlined for every aspect of your organization. It is important that you implement a process that distributes supporting duties fairly around the team. It does not need to be complicated, but it takes a conscious effort to break old habits. A simple process for support tasks might include:

  • Identifying the support, non-promotable tasks associated with team performance
  • Round-robining who performs these tasks
  • Tracking the team’s weekly tasks, how long they take and who is doing them

Process is also critical in fairly evaluating contributions and outcomes. Take the time to define and outline an objective list of criteria for evaluating employees’ work, and then stick to it. This way, when you reach a conclusion you can support it with detailed, fact-based examples. A solid evaluation procedure might involve:

  • Identifying what a job’s essential skills look like for a successful team member
  • Rating the employee based on documented actions or behaviors
  • Supporting the rating with specific examples that show successful, average, or unsuccessful work performance
  • Comparing ratings across the team to ensure consistent standards are applied

There are unconscious biases within us all, and they are an inevitable part of your professional life, but that does not mean we need to let it drive decision making and harm company culture. Identify the areas that unconscious bias is harming your organization, then develop a plan to combat those biases and redirect old patterns. How are you combating unconscious bias? Follow Emtrain on LinkedIn and Twitter to share your story and stay informed with our healthy culture tips and tricks.

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John Wiese
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