• Jeff Doolittle

No Justice: Mitigating Bias at Work

Leaders can be both agents of good and bad within companies. Too often, we see news reports of leadership failures, and those involved are not only those impacted by those failures. Consider the VW decision to hide problems with emissions that resulted in a 2015 recall of 8.5 million cars in Europe, including 2.4 million in Germany and 1.2 million in the UK, and 500,000 in the US. Leadership failures are leadership failure. According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, most people no longer trust leaders, and a growing sense of inequity is undermining trust.

Justice and Fairness in the Workplace

In ancient discussions of how humans should live, Aristotle, Plato, and Aquinas first identified four cardinal virtues: justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. The virtue of justice includes many different concepts, including truthfulness, honesty, and fairness. Aristotle defined virtue as a habit for behaving in the right manner, neither in excess nor deficiency.

According to Northouse (2018), “ethical leaders are concerned about issues of fairness and justice” (p.344).

Leaders can demonstrate fairness through adhering to policies; however, how they relate with followers is essential in influencing moral opinions in the work context. Ethical leadership (doing the right thing, at the right time, and for the right reason) has a positive correlation with increased job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

Bias in the Workplace

Leadership ethics transcends any specific leadership theory. The topic of justice spurs many heated discussions in society. An associated current topic of discussion in many company boardrooms is the concept of bias in the hiring process. Bias and the resulting cognitive errors in talent selection is the failure of justice. Bias in the hiring process is the absence of virtue and a moral shortcoming or corruption.

According to Bendick and Nunes (2012), “discrimination based on race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, age, disability, gender orientation, and other characteristics” continues to negatively impact employment opportunities for traditionally omitted groups (p.238).

In American federal and state laws, highly structured interview processes, and training are used to control the negative impacts of biases. However, serious issues still exist in hiring, including pay inequity, and other acts of discrimination. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received claims that totaled over 72,000 in 2019.

Figure 1: Number of charges per 10,000 population by State for FY2019. Source: eeoc.gov

Mitigating Leadership Bias

Increasing leadership awareness on cognitive errors associated with bias is proven to be a useful tool to help selection teams avoid making errors in selection. Provide the hiring team with just-in-time training on bias and cognitive errors in decision making before interviews begin. Also, technology can potentially support leaders in their application of fairness and justice in hiring decisions. Utilize predictive analytics and big data to help identify where bias exists within the organization as well as to identify ideal candidate attributes.

I would enjoy hearing from you. Where and how have you observed or experienced fairness and justice success stories or failures?