Workers' trash-talk goes down as leadership diversity goes up

There is less perceived bias when upper roles are filled by people with diverse demographic backgrounds.

As part of an effort to stamp out prejudice at work — and its legal consequences — companies have invested lots of time and money training managers to be more sensitive, less biased, and more culturally aware.

There might be a better way. A new survey from the Center for Talent Innovation suggests that employees are less likely to perceive bias when top jobs are held by people from varied demographic backgrounds. In the same way, employees who had sponsors — people who make you visible to leaders in the company — were 90 percent less likely to perceive bias in the actions of their employers.

In a survey of 3,570 professionals between the ages of 21 and 65, researchers asked workers how they think their bosses perceive them and how they judge their own potential. Across categories, people of color, people with disabilities, and people born outside the U.S. were more likely to perceive prejudice from their superiors. Workers who perceived that bias were less likely to get a raise, get expanded responsibility, or get a promotion.

They were also more likely to criticize their employer on social media and less likely to refer friends to work at the company or to say they feel proud of where they work.

The ubiquity of social media changes the stakes for companies, Ripa Rashid, coauthor of the study, said in an interview. “Employees had far fewer avenues or channels. Companies now have much less control of their brand among their employees than they once did.”

Diverse Leadership

That’s undeniably frustrating to employers and managers. While there are plenty of incidents of illegal discrimination and a backlog of complaints at the EEOC to prove it, there are also more minor slights that can boil over if employees think there’s prejudice at work.

So far, companies have tried to quash bias by raising awareness about how stereotypes and implicit assumptions influence managers’ decisions, which in turn impacts workers’ careers and overall talent development, said Howard Ross, founding partner at Cook Ross, which has studied these training programs for the past 15 years.

Understanding not just what managers do but how employees feel is important, he said.

“It can still have a lot to do with how effectively you work together,” Ross said. “It can also impact how well people work with their peers and how they collaborate, who they trust, how effective they are in communicating.”

As a way to guard against a general perception of potential barriers based on race, gender and sexual orientation, researchers recommended companies prioritize diversity in leadership, as well as employee sponsorship programs.

“There are certainly steps that you can take where you can create the positive culture where employees feel valued and feel like they have no reason to speak negatively on social media because they don’t have anything negative to say,” Laura Sherbin, a coauthor, said.