Bias in the Boardroom, What to Say When You Hear the Unexpected

March 14, 2019

As a Human Capital Consultant, Diversity and Inclusion Leader and Executive Coach for more than 20 years, I’ve sat in boardrooms with Fortune 1000 executives, boards of directors and leadership teams from across various industries and backgrounds. While the topic and tone of these discussions vary from company to company, leader to leader and meeting to meeting, there seems to be one overriding theme that is growing in relevance and priority. It is a topic which is near and dear to my heart: diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. While most leaders recognize its importance, many are still grappling with how best to promote and advance it within their organizations – and in some cases – how to talk about it. This topic is without a doubt one of the most critical, sensitive and urgent topics in business today.

So why is it that despite being well into the second decade of the 21st century, and years after the passing of gender and racial equality legislation in the United States, leaders are still struggling with diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace? With underrepresented groups growing in size and influence, why are we not seeing improved and sustained diversity results, especially at senior levels? Why do some people shut down, roll their eyes, or run in the opposite direction when this topic is broached at leadership meetings? As someone who prides herself in her ability to problem-solve, I continue to be both perplexed and curious about this issue. These leaders are smart people. They know their business. They get the competitive landscape. They appreciate the opportunities they have been given. They understand the needs of their customers. They care about their employees. They want to improve shareholder value. So why then are they unable to solve this issue?

Allow me to introduce you to bias. Bias is a small four-letter word that packs a mean punch, and none of us are immune to it. Bias as we define it, occurs when two groups of people act identically but are treated differently. It’s a prejudice, conscious or unconscious, in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair. Bias creeps up when we least expect it, and it does not discriminate. Here are just three of the most dangerous biased statements I have seen and heard from within and across the boardroom. I’m writing to share my experience, validate what you may be thinking, and equip you with the right things to say when you face bias in your workplace.

  1. “Women will always put their families before the company.”
    o What you are likely thinking: Let’s be real here. Show me a working parent, female or male, who does not prioritize their family, and I will show you someone you likely won’t want to hire or bring onto your board.
    o How you might want to respond: “Knowing how to manage priorities is a key attribute of any good leader. What matters most are the results they deliver and how the leader priorities and leverages their network to support them in managing both as a parent and as a professional.” Then, throw in a fact. This is one of my many favorites but do feel free to find one that resonates with you. “Did you know that if women get a chance to work to their full potential (e.g. have an equal role to men across all roles) they’ll add $28 trillion to the global GDP by 2025? I don’t know about you, but I think our company should capitalize on this.”
  2. “Hiring diverse talent will compromise our quality.”
    o What you are likely thinking: Who says this? This is ludicrous. What a racist and naïve remark. Have you ever worked with people of different ethnicities and backgrounds? Do any exist in your social or professional circles?
    o How you might want to respond: Bite your tongue, smile, make direct eye contact and start with a question. “What makes you say this?” After you’ve carefully listened and acknowledged the response, take a moment to inform. “Thanks for your perspective. The published research shows that increased levels of diversity and inclusion dramatically improve bottom line results by as much as 35%, leads to more innovative ideas and increases not only levels of employee and customer satisfaction but also shareholder results. Focusing on diversity sounds like an incredible strategy for increasing our competitive advantage. Are you interested in seeing the research?”
  3. “Millennials are lazy and expect everything handed to them.”
    o What you are likely thinking: Was this person ever young? Does she/he have kids? Do they even know what a millennial is? Do they have millennials in their network?
    o How you might want to respond: “Yes, I have heard this before. I often smile at this analogy since I can only imagine what other generations have said about us when we were up and coming and look at us know. Did you know that millennials will represent more than 70% of the U.S. professional workforce by 2025; that they are starting businesses at faster rates than any generation before them, and that their tech skills far surpass that of any other generation? Considering the competitive landscape, I believe they are a force to be reckoned with and we can learn a lot from them.”
    These are just some of the many biases I’ve experienced in the boardroom. If we are to change things for the better and really improve diversity and inclusion results, we must first examine our own biases. Consider the facts, share our views, and look for opportunities to not only mitigate bias but also practice conscious inclusion.

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