Your Company’s Economy May Be the Root of Unconscious Bias
Every organization operates its own economy—a structure, system, set of rules, and roles for managing resources. A company’s economy is another component of the company culture every employee must learn to navigate. And like any economy, its conditions can be productive or destructive, fair or exploitative.
When you think about the economy of your company, does it seem distributed, consolidated at the top, transparent, stable, plagued by scandal, filled with unwritten rules, marked by elite or underprivileged classes?
In this article, I will take a close look at the three major components of every company’s economy: the bottom line, the currency, and the accountability structures. Every employee, most especially women and people of color, must understand these functions and their effects because the company economy is where unconscious bias lives and breeds. And unconscious bias can have devastating financial, emotional, and career consequences.
What is Your Company’s Bottom Line?
It’s surprising how often employees don’t know the answer to this question. Or how often they think it’s one thing when really, it’s another.
The most common bottom line is profit. It gets trickier in the nonprofit or education sectors that live by their missions, but they too have a bottom line, whether or not it’s directly articulated. A bottom line might be the number of students graduated, amount of funding infused into the community, number of jobs added to a sector, number of championships won. The common denominator across all of these is a precise and measurable achievement against which your success is valued.
How clear is your company about its bottom line, and how it expects you to contribute?
How Are Employees Held Accountable to the Bottom Line?
A bottom line should be used to measure employee contributions, or lack thereof—how many sales you completed, how many clients you’ve gained, how many billable hours you logged, how many new territories you broke into, how much profit you contributed to with your soft skills, team management, hiring, decision making, or cost management.
This kind of objective and transparent measurement of an employee’s value is crucial to a functioning company economy.
What happens when your company doesn’t know its own bottom line? It will, without a doubt, still measure your value. But it will use opinions, perceptions, second-hand information, prejudices, and preferences as its measurements—all of which carry conscious and unconscious bias.
Most People Don’t Intend to Discriminate
Unconscious biases are almost always incompatible with our conscious values. We don’t acknowledge them because we don’t want to think we judge others based on their immutable characteristics. Likely no one in your office would intentionally deny a promotion based on race or intentionally create a hostile working environment based on gender. And yet, women and people of color endure these acts every day.
What’s happening here? Part of the explanation is that our unconscious biases get activated by negative forces like pressure, stress, sudden changes, or conflict. Those biases then shape our behavior in ways that we’re also unconscious of—exclusion, stereotyping, holding unreasonable expectations, enforcing double-standards, mistaking sameness for merit.
The other part is that when organizations don’t hold people accountable to the bottom line, criteria steeped in bias will begin to shape how people are treated and how they are paid.
The Perfect Conditions for Unconscious Bias
If you’re working at a company right now without a clear bottom line, you will likely experience the disorientation of hidden or shifting expectations. If you’re working at a company without a transparent system of measurement and accountability directly tied to compensation and other impactful consequences, unconscious bias will not only infiltrate the company economy, it will begin to rule the system entirely. Because people will always find a way to judge and evaluate what they think is important.
What is Your Company’s Currency?
A client of mine who is a senior attorney was billing plenty of hours, and yet, because her firm’s economy was opaque, she was ultimately given a low-performance review score. My client’s supervisors had determined arbitrarily that she “wasn’t nice enough.” To top it off, they also kept their compensation structure hidden so that no one had any idea how their worth was being measured. It made for a confusing work environment, to say the least.
This example reveals the hidden nature of a company’s currency. Like money, company currency is what circulates in your economy—what’s used to buy power, access, time, authority, and most importantly, safety.
You use currency to get what you want from other people.
No Bottom Line and No Accountability Create Toxic Currency
I’ve seen organizations use all kinds of currency, including niceness, political affiliations, inside relationships, prestige, blame, popularity, jargon, complaining, and personal wealth.
Here are some anonymized examples of how dysfunctional an organization can be with no bottom line, no accountability, and toxic currency:
A major research university doesn’t know if its bottom line is enrollment, the size of its endowment, or national rankings, but its currency is prestige—fleeting, subjective, and bestowed from the outside. Faculty and staff are subject to unconscious biases of “prestige”—their dress, their language, their popularity, their sex, their race, their displays of personal wealth. Subpar teachers are not held accountable because everyone is too busy chasing a reputation to build accountability.
A law firm doesn’t have a system of accountability for its profit margin. They end up taking on any client, many unprofitable ones because they don’t consider which accounts align with their bottom line. When they start losing money, people point fingers and use the currency of blame. Everyone shifts the blame, and no one is safe to truly address the problem.
A tech company ignores profits because its currency is the hype of its product. Employees are anxious because their product is meant to be used by “everyone” and it makes impact hard to measure. Group-think ends up ruling the company culture and anyone who sees things differently in any way is treated with derision or exclusion. Eventually, everyone stops taking risks and innovating because there is no measure of efficacy. Why? Because losing money doesn’t make people rethink their strategy.
The list doesn’t end there. Consider the latest scandals: college admissions bribery, Theranos, R. Kelly. All examples of sacrificing integrity to a toxic currency with zero accountability.
Dangerous Economies for Women and People of Color
Dysfunctional company economies make work stressful, even hostile, for everyone. But for women and people of color, the effects are heightened and more devastating, both professionally and personally. Unconscious bias will manifest as discrimination, hostility, or exclusion—and always land on those seen as different.
People of color and women need a company culture with a transparent and objective measure of their value. When you can correlate your achievement with a bottom line your company cares about, you can show your value and do your best work. This gives you the opportunity to mitigate the consequences of bias, should you be a target.
Without these conditions, you are not in a safe work environment. Trying to prove your value against biases is what sends us into adaptation overdrive, constantly filtering, shifting, and questioning ourselves just to feel safe. Take it from me and the client stories I hear every day: you will feel crazy and you will burn out.
Before You Take Any Job, Ask About Its Accountability
Companies will talk about success, but you need to be clear on the real bottom line. And it’s up to you to ask during the interview process.
Are the company’s revenue goals and profits shared throughout the organization?
What measurements are used in employee evaluation?
What is your compensation structure?
How is compensation tied to employee contribution and profitability?
How are employees rewarded or held accountable for their contributions?
Who makes these decisions and how do they make them?
How do you provide feedback and what is it based on?
What is your commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion?
How do you measure the success of your commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion?
And look out for the red flags:
A company that can’t explain its compensation structure.
A company that doesn’t have an evaluation process.
A company that doesn’t hold its executives accountable for outcomes in relation to their values.
A company that’s unwilling to have this conversation at all.
A company that says, “we are nice people, we just don’t worry about it.”
If You’re Already in a Toxic Company Economy
If you find yourself already stuck inside a toxic company economy or culture, there are a few steps you can take for yourself.
Step away from tasks that inflict bias on you. Work less with a certain partner or colleague, take different projects, don’t pitch to certain teams.
Draw hard boundaries on your time. Stop working late. Don’t work on weekends. Don’t do work that isn’t yours. You need to buy back your time so that you can begin a job search.
It may take time for you to get clarity on what exactly your company values and how it handles accountability. My hope for those who are now realizing they are not in a safe work environment is feeling less alone and knowing it is not your fault or your failing that is making you feel like the ground is constantly shifting beneath you.
For those who feel safe enough to push for more transparency and even better practices, my next article will continue on the topic of accountability and take a look at how organizations can make a real and lasting commitment to living out their diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity. If you would like to receive my newsletter directly in your inbox, please sign up here.