jade rubick

Implementing promotion bias checks


This is a part of a series of posts on improving equity at your company.

As a manager of managers, the easiest and most impactful way to reduce bias in promotions is to make a promotion bias spreadsheet. Use it in real-time to show if your promotion decisions are demonstrating bias.

Here’s how to do it.

  1. Create a spreadsheet with everyone in the organization being promoted.
  2. Add a column for under represented minority (URM). Yes or No.

    • Note: this is highly imperfect. Determining if someone is a URM or not isn’t easy. There are intersectionality issues that this doesn’t account for. Gender isn’t binary. Etc. You can take that into account if you want, but you might want to do that in later iterations, after you have some practice with this.
    • You probably should consult with your HR department about this. I’ve seen companies simplify this by using preferred pronouns to indicate URM status (but that ignores too much in my opinion). There aren’t any easy ways to categorize people.
    • I’ve done it anyway, despite these complications. The aim of this is to do a real-time check on your decisions, and make you think about it more carefully and consciously.
  3. Set up the spreadsheet to show percent of promotions that are URMs, versus non URMs. Add graphs if you want to be fancy!
  4. You can do all sorts of interesting things with this: promotions by level, promotions by tenure at the company, promotions by URM status.
  5. Invite your managers to a promotion review meeting, where the managers in your organization come together and review all the promotion decisions. I usually devote about 3-5 minutes per promotion pitch.
  6. Invite HR and an observer from outside your organization. Ask them to be on the lookout for bias. (This is just an extra practice that helps).
  7. During your promotion review meetings, update the spreadsheet in real-time.
  8. Review it during the meeting, and definitely before finalizing the promotions. Ask the review team: what patterns are we seeing in the promotions we’re making? Is there any evidence of bias? What changes might we consider to reduce bias? Have an open discussion about it.

The purpose of this spreadsheet is to switch the team’s thinking from their gut to real analysis.

You may notice patterns in who is getting promoted you wouldn’t notice before. I’ve used this in the past to notice that we were promoting senior engineers more heavily than junior engineers (we ended up rethinking some of our promotions as a result), and also used it to notice some women we weren’t promoting that really deserved it.

You may very well come out of the meeting having an unequal result. That can be okay, as long as you’ve given the results a hard look, and asked your team to think carefully about their rationale for hiring. This forces you to think carefully about who you’re promoting and why.

For this reason, this technique works even if you don’t have statistical relevance or a large sample size. The purpose is to force analysis, not to force an outcome.

Let me know about your experience with this, and if it helps!

Image credit: Tumisu via Pixabay

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