The Thank-You Note – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Pelikan Fountain Pen, by David Blackwell (=)
Pelikan Fountain Pen.  Photo courtesy of David Blackwell.

Do you remember the last time you received a thank-you note?  It felt special, didn’t it?  Strangely, we feel nervous about sending these kinds of notes.  Do thank-you notes actually accomplish anything? Aren’t we supposed to focus on getting real work done?

I pride myself on making a productive contribution to my workplace.  One of the most powerful impacts I have is when I find people who want to use Excel better.  I give them a few tutorials to upgrade their skills, and send them off as a more productive player.  I want more people in our human resources office to open spreadsheets and crank out the numbers themselves.  It lessens the burden on me, and creates an environment where everyone talks freely about the numbers.  And voila, we have the research-influenced workplace.

What is baffling is when people send me thank-you notes and Starbucks gift cards for devoting my precious time to help develop their skills.  Don’t they understand that I am manipulating them to achieve my own selfish goals?  Don’t they understand that I’m an economist?  Who are these social workers and coaches and creatives types, to think they can bring me into their magical world with nothing more than a few words of gratitude?  My cunning plan has gone horribly awry.

What Exactly Are the Rules of Gift Exchange?

Generosity and gratitude are a common source of misunderstanding.  I once got really curious about gift exchange.  It started out as an attempt to understand social norms, but I ended up reading anthropological research about gift-giving in archaic societies. (Of course I did).  I read a couple of books on the topic, including Marcel Mauss’ The Gift (W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 1990).  This “gift economy,” just to introduce the Wikipedia page on the topic, makes huge distinctions between the market behaviours of commercial transactions and non-market gift exchange.  This is important to understand, because showing up at work every day is a market activity.  But if it’s a good workplace, colleagues act like they are in the same tribe.

Gift exchange has many subtle rules that are similar across cultures and across time.  There is usually a time lag between gift-giving moments.  The giving of a gift places the other person in debt, and the gift must be repaid for fear the relationship could be severed.  There is a tendency towards reciprocity and balance, and attempts to profit from the exchange are mostly taboo.  The dynamic fosters qualitative relationships, as opposed to the quantitative relationships of market trade.

Also, those who are obliged to accept charitable gifts feel a sense of being poisoned and stigmatized, as they are unable to keep things even.  You can subjugate vulnerable populations by staying one-up on them with gift-giving.  Who says anthropologists can’t learn a trick or two from economists?

Thank-You Notes are Undervalued

I see thank-you notes as a key part of gift exchange.  The notes acknowledge an exchange of good-will.  They place, in writing, that gratitude has been established.  There is the implication that a favour might be returned one day, or paid-forward to a third party.  Thank-you notes formalize that an emotional thread has been established between giver and recipient.  Society is a web of such threads, and we weave ourselves into this web as it entangles us in obligations, for better or worse.

In an article at the British Psychological Society, Christian Jarrett reviews research conducted by Amit Kumar and Nicholas Elpey on expressions of gratitude.  The researchers asked participants to send thank-you notes to people who had contributed to their lives in a meaningful way.  The researchers then followed-up with the recipients to ask how they felt.

“The senders of the thank-you letters consistentlyunderestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the letters and how surprised they were by the content. The senders also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt; and they underestimated how warm, and especially how competent, the recipients perceived them to be.” (Emphasis added)

These misjudgments discouraged people from sending the thank-you notes in the first place.  The authors note that withholding this gratitude is to refrain from “a powerful act of civility.”  The notes benefit both the recipient and the sender, as the sender is perceived to be more competent.

Is Formal Recognition a Meaningful Workplace Practice?

In addition to hand-written notes and kudos emails, some workplaces have formalized recognition programs that distribute points between employees.  All employees are given points to distribute to someone other than themselves (just to be clear), and there’s an electronic system to keep score.  Top givers and top receivers are profiled on a periodic basis, and sometimes points can be cashed in for swag or experiences.  A quick internet search reveals programs such as Kudos, Achievers, Point Recognition, and Terryberry.  Terryberry has a great infographic detailing the benefits of these programs, referencing credible sources at the bottom of the page.

In terms of effectiveness, recognition programs cause higher customer satisfaction, better employee engagement, and staff turnover that is about 24-31% lower, depending on the study.  To clarify, if your turnover rate used to be 8% and it dropped to 6%, that’s a 25% reduction in turnover.

These programs net a massive value proposition.  If a company spends 1% of payroll on these programs, 85% see a positive impact.  Delta Airlines saw a 564% return on their investment.  Massive percentage returns are often the result of an incredibly low denominator.  That is, if Delta spent 1% of payroll and saw a 6.64% increase in productivity, that is consistent with a 564% return.  But it’s nothing to sniff at.  If you know of people trying to earn more than 10% per year on the stock market, you would have to acknowledge that recognition is far more impactful than anything being pushed to you by bankers.

Incentive Plans and Recognition Programs Are Very Different

A key detail that must not be missed, is that recognition programs bear little resemblance to formal incentive plans.  In Alfie Kohn’s 1999 book Punished by Rewards, he details how performance-contingent rewards (i.e. do this and you’ll get that) cause behaviours that largely decrease business effectiveness.  When you offer an employee a 10% target bonus for exhibiting certain behaviours, they tend to minimize risk, abandon creativity, game the system, and express severe outrage when they get less than the maximum bonus.  And so, this 10% bonus achieves approximately zero return on investment, and possibly a negative return.

The issue is that people don’t like to be controlled by overlords, and incentive plans are inherently controlling.  Incentive plans have a scientific legacy that they are designed by people who make no distinction between humans and rodents.

By contrast, recognition systems are expressions of warm-feeling and a sense of emerging qualitative relationships between peers.  When you exchange thanks with peers, you love them a little.

So, reflect on your week and think about those who helped you achieve your goals.  Get past that misinformed sense that expressing gratitude will create discomfort.  Establish those threads of good-will between peers, and weave together an archaic society of those who can keep things even.  It makes you more competent.  It makes you human again.

What If You Can Do It All?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Costumes. Photo courtesy of Joel Kramer.

Adaptability is turning out to be a smoldering-hot skill-in-demand.  And lucky for me, I just discovered that I’m part of a newly-defined category of high-functioning misfits.  There are people who have a diverse range of interests and must stay in that varied space to function at their best.  That special thing where I change obsessions all the time is not a flaw. Instead, I can simply join the subculture of people who cherish adaptability.  Maybe you can join me?

The TED talk by Emilie Wapnick is called “Why Some of Us Don’t Have to Have One True Calling.”  Her talk takes-apart of the presumption that we must find that one thing we’re passionate about and strive to be the best at that one thing.  Yes, there are people who are specialists at heart.  But that style doesn’t work for everyone.

For those who change interests frequently, Wapnick has coined the phrase “multipotentialite.” These people have multiple areas of potential strength into which they can grow in irregular busts of enthusiasm and learning.  Multipotentialites have three super-powers, which happen to be powers that are desperately needed in the smart machine age:

  1. Idea Synthesis. Combining two or more fields, generating an innovation at the intersection.
  2. Rapid learning. As experienced newcomers they “go hard” into each new learning area.
  3. Adaptability. Morph into whatever is needed in every situation.

Idea Synthesis

I discussed hybrid skills briefly when reviewing Josh Bersin’s forecasts for 2017.  Bersin asserted that combining two unrelated skills was an emerging trend in the future of work.  Job descriptions where employers demand a single skills bundle are falling out of favour.  Instead, people will rock their workplace by bringing together two or more skills that aren’t normally seen together, such as coding skill and sales.

At research universities it is understood that the best research is often found at the overlap between disciplines.  In a 2003 article in Science Magazine, Elisabeth Pain notes:

Multidisciplinarity has a LOT to offer to early-career scientists in terms of opportunities and excitement. The Human Genome Project, the World Wide Web, and the boundaries of the infinitely small are only a few of the fertile fields where new research is flourishing. Those scientists who have taken the plunge swear by multidisciplinarity and will even say that you won’t be able to survive in science if you don’t keep an open mind to the advantages afforded by multidisciplinary approaches.

If you have ever been on a cross-functional work team, you may have noticed some special skills are required; trusting the expertise of those in other areas of knowledge, taking for granted there is no tradition or external reference, and working towards common language with the absence of jargon.  I find that common language is particularly interesting.  I was on one project where almost everyone had a different professional vocabulary, a different software language, and a different mother tongue.  I had to speak slowly and clearly, putting relationships first.

Emilie Wapnick, in addition to her TED talk, has a great website called “puttylike” (with a mailing list) which includes a brief overview of how she has helped people identify their hybrid expertise and turn it into a “renaissance business.”  She encourages people to bundle their interests under an umbrella concept, identify how two concepts can be woven together, and name the lens through which they look at the world, with that lens being their unique offering.

Adaptability and the Growth Mindset

Adaptability is becoming an critical skill.  Natalie Fratto in an article in Fast Company asserts that adaptability “…will soon become a primary predictor of success, with general intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ) both taking a back seat.”  Fratto thinks the current interest in emotional intelligence has happened already making the next new thing compelling.

Fratto links adaptability to the concept of having a growth mindset, the idea “that your qualities can improve with effort and experience…” according to another article in Fast Company.  By contrast, those with the old status-quo view have a fixed mindset, which presumes our qualities are stable over time and our previously-accumulated knowledge and record-of-wins is a reliable measure of future worth.  People with a fixed mindset are not keen on receiving feedback, are judgmental of others (making performance stereotypes), and don’t put effort into helping people grow.  In the Fast Company article, Rusty Weston quotes Carol S. Dweck when discussing her book on the topic Mindset, the New Psychology of Success.

“As you might expect, growth oriented managers are more likely than fixed mindset managers to accept feedback or embrace change. ‘The irony of a fixed mindset,’ says Dweck, ‘is you want to be so successful so badly is that it stands in the way of going where you want to go.’”

Angela Duckworth has also created a quick video that explains the two mindsets clearly.

How Fast Can You Learn?

Josh Kaufmann is the author of The First 20 Hours: Mastering the Toughest Part of Learning Anything.  I tried to read it several years ago but I learned so much from the first thirty pages I put it down and moved on.  If you have even less patience than that, his TED talk covers the same topic.  Kaufmann offers a rebuttal to the book Outliers in which Malcom Gladwell cited research that to accomplish world-class performance you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

There was a flaw in the way Gladwell’s writing influenced public thinking.  Yes, you need 10,000 hours to become exceptional, but what if you only wanted to be “good enough” at a certain skill?  Kaufmann found that in that case you only need to commit 20 hours.  But you must apply these 20 hours in a particular way.

  1. Deconstruct the Skill: Define the skill and break it down into smaller pieces. Many skills are a package of several sub-skills, so identifying and learning sub-skills in sequence will move you quickly towards the packaged skill.
  2. Learn Enough to Self-Correct: Learn just enough that you can self-edit and self-correct.  In keeping with permission-to-fail you must be allowed to try things out, occasionally fail, learn and reflect on the mistakes, then try something different in a continuous loop of learning.
  3. Remove Practice Barriers: You need a devoted time and place where nothing pulls you off-course. No internet. No kids. No work. Just you and your learning.
  4. Practice At Least 20 Hours: Persevere, don’t give up if you’re feeling stupid and frustrated after a few hours.  Getting past that wall is a major performance barrier, so just keep going.  In this case it’s just perseverance: a good IQ will not save you.

Kaufmann finishes his TED talk by performing a medley on the ukulele, after having just spent 20 hours learning that one skill for the first time.  He’s not going to sell an album, but he was pretty good.  Well done!

For me, changing obsessions makes work seem like a series of action films.  I see a future in which teams of people with unusual talents are carefully put together, in a manner that resembles movies like Ocean’s Eleven, Seven Samurai, and the first part of Lord of the Rings.  The teams develop their way-of-talking, their manners, their code that none of them truly works in isolation.  They change as individuals in a manner that co-evolves with the world they are taking advantage of, the world they are shaping.

Then they’re done.  And onward to the next adventure.  Onward to the next obsession.

Workplace Wisdom Needed in This Day and Age

Landscape. byi Rosmarie Voegtli
Landscape. Photo courtesy of Rosmarie Voegtli.

What are the biggest blind spots in communication between the generations? Probably the ones that are never discussed.  When I’m formatting charts and tables, I have a rule that the font size has to be at least 12-point.  As my information goes up the chain of command, higher-ranking people tend to be older.  Their eyes aren’t what they used to be, and they might not tell you. You have just to “know” they can’t read 10-point.  If only things were more transparent.

What does it take to create a team environment in which all generations are encouraged to bring their unique perspectives?

Developing Positive Attitudes About Older Workers

Older workers are a vulnerable population – particularly when they’re laid off. In an interesting article at the New York Times, Kerry Hannon reviews several businesses that are getting the most out of older workers.  Employing older workers is all about having the right attitude. At Silvercup Studios, which produced Sex and the City and Sopranos, more than half of the workforce is over 50. The company perceives that older workers are more settled, have a greater sense of loyalty, and can be retained at a lower cost than bringing in someone new.

Hannon references the Age Smart program delivered by Columbia University’s Mailman School.  The program strengthens the relationship between employers and older workers.  Age Smart’s fact sheets are packed with interesting and relevant information.  One of the fact sheets emphasizes that the visibility of older workers to older customers “enhance business relations and open opportunities with this market…” Often the most compelling case for diversity management is to match employee and customer demographics for comfort, understanding, and increased sales revenues.

The job tenure of older workers tends to be longer, increasing the return on investments in learning.  This is important because the stereotype is that older people don’t learn as quickly.  But they can still learn with more time, and older workers bring a lot of accumulated knowledge in the first place.  Your mixture of new vs. established knowledge can be improved with age diversity.

Sometimes, but not always, the old ideas turn out to be the right ones.  For example, my hippie stepfather taught me that if you are attending a political rally, the protester advocating violence is probably a cop.  He observed this phenomenon 50 years ago.  His advice kept me out of trouble.

Older-Worker Programs Require Good Practices Generally

The biggest benefit of having proactive programming for older workers is that it obliges the employer to create a more deliberate workplace.  High-functioning diversity programs begin with good human resources programs onto which a diversity lens is added.  Age-inclusive workplaces are no exception:

“Age-diversity training and education allows managers to build cohesive and functional organizational culture among employees of all ages. Proven tools and techniques to address age as a diversity issue also assist managers to set goals, track progress and remain accountable to organizational leadership for continued progress and improvement.” (Emphasis added)

As I mentioned when discussing women’s financial security, personal financial worries tend to distract employees from focusing on their best work. Programs to ease employees into a viable retirement involve features such as financial planning, phased retirement, and opportunities for post-retirement work engagements.  These hybrid supports “…decrease stress, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and improve employee loyalty…”

Knowledge Management Harnesses Older Workers’ Knowledge

Hannon interviewed staff at Huntington Ingalls Industries, a major shipbuilder, where “Nearly half of our employees could retire at any day…”  They have no age limit for their apprentice program.

“To keep its aging workforce engaged with their work, there are intergenerational mentoring programs. Younger workers mentor older ones, too. ‘…the younger workers are helping employees who have been here longer get really comfortable with using the technology.’”

I’m impressed by the sophisticated attitude about who knows best.  You learn a lot by teaching others because you have to become clear about what your expertise is and how to explain it.  Giving younger workers the opportunity to impart technological knowledge to older workers is a win for both parties, and the business too.

Age Smart makes a distinction between professional development programs that are age-neutral (i.e. offered equally regardless of age, like the program above) and age-sensitive programs that are aimed at middle-aged and older workers.  But both types are beneficial:

“Both types have been shown to improve job performanceincrease promotions and improve retention among older workers. They also develop and universally apply performance metrics across the organization to ensure optimal performance and job fit from employees of all ages.” (Emphasis added)

Effective workplace cultures are built around passing information freely between employees, not the monopolization of knowledge for power and job security.  As such, Age Smart employers are encouraged to engage in knowledge management.  They need to “identify and prioritize the types of knowledge and information that is critical for organizational stability… institutional knowledge, relationship knowledge, job knowledge, tacit knowledge and historical knowledge.”  This practice is generally a good idea but the aging workforce makes it an imperative.

Flexible Work Arrangements Have Diverse Benefits

Older workers also benefit greatly from flexible work arrangements.  Hannon spoke with leaders at the accounting firm PKF O’Connor Davies, who noted that workers approaching retirement often arrange to relocate to offices nearer to home or work part time from home, often to be close to relatives needing care.

When employers organize flexible work arrangements they are encouraged to “Offer a variety of flex options, define expectations clearly and make them universally available to all those who meet criteria.”  This makes things fair and creates accountability, hallmarks of a good practice.

“Workplace flexibility is an increasingly utilized strategy to boost engagement and improve retention among employees of all ages. It is particularly important for managing older workers to stay effective at work while balancing changing life priorities.  …Establish a culture of flexibility where management is trained to manage flexible schedules and virtual offices, and employees are educated about flex options. Ensure these options are not perceived as damaging to career security or growth.” (Emphasis added)

As mentioned in my overview of work-from-home arrangements, those working from home can experience a reduced likelihood of promotion. That may not be a major sacrifice amongst those easing into retirement.  But in order to find out, you would need to ask them as individuals about their perspective.  (See how that works?)

Not everyone will tell you what they’re thinking.  Age Smart employers are encouraged to create documents in large fonts, because eye problems start to emerge after age 40.  If you asked me, I would say I can see everything just fine. I’m only 48.  I’m going to rock forever!

Interracial Couples are Eroding Racism

hands-2604868_1280, CC by pixabay

Do you ever get pressure to choose between two ways of thinking?  Yeah, I don’t like it either.  Personally, I have always been intrigued by the lives of those who straddle categories.  Unless it’s on a chessboard, there’s nothing pleasant about dividing things into black versus white. The state of our discourse has been reduced to binary arguments that strip away our ability to have nuanced conversation. That is not who I am and not what society is meant to be.

Research shows that opportunities and opinions go in circles within cliques, and that people within those cliques are usually very similar.  If you were organizing a workplace or a community towards mutual understanding and opportunity for all, you would want to open up those cliques.  And if you personally wanted to break free you would need to make inroads into new crowds.

So how do you break down cliques? Nobody does it better than people with a foot in two worlds.  I personally find this interesting because I have a background in the labour movement, but I have since moved into human resources.  I have had some wild conversations about what people think the union ought to do, and what I assert the union is certain to do based on their history and their purpose.  But that’s lightweight compared to what some people have experienced.  Some people straddle worlds by changing nationality, by seeking education beyond what their parents had achieved, or by switching religious or political affiliation.  Others are born into two categories, including those who are biracial.

The Loving Generation and Emerging Career Equality

Anna Holmes wrote an interesting editorial in the New York Times in February 2018.  Holmes is a member of the “Loving Generation,” children born to mixed-race couples shortly after the Loving vs. Virginia supreme court ruling.  The 1967 case struck down laws prohibiting black and white couples from marrying.  More mixed-race kids were born soon afterward, heralding the arrival of a new and more prominent hybrid identity.

When Holmes was in her early thirties she began to compile a list of people who, like herself, were part of this cohort.  The list included public figures in sports, entertainment, and politics such as Derek Jeter, Halle Berry, and even Barack Obama.  When she looked to leaders, she found black communities where the leadership was disproportionately mixed-race.

Holmes perceives that mixed-race people can call upon their whiteness to open doors.  Members of the Loving Generation have a comfort with white people because of their upbringing, and often presume that they can do just as well as the white side of their family.

Holmes spoke with Mat Johnson, author of the 2015 novel Loving Day.  Johnson notes,

“If we are a segment of the African-American population that has access to power and privilege, what does it mean ethically to live that life?” For his part, Mr. Johnson said, it means making a sustained effort not just to acknowledge his privileges but to use them to help those not similarly situated. He paused, then added, “I think it’s valid to point this out even if it’s uncomfortable.”

If you have an advantage, you can still take care of yourself.  But you still have a responsibility to others who do not have that advantage.  It’s a good leadership principle for people of all backgrounds.

But wait, what about white people who have an abundance of privilege?  Do they perceive that they should help others?

Anxiety About White Decline is Sensitive to Data Definitions

Over at the Washington Post, Dowell Myers and Morris Levy cite some interesting research about anxiety amongst American whites over the multi-decade decline of the white majority.  While some people want to hold onto the advantages of their “category,” the definition of this category is not so robust.

What they uncovered is that there are six different forecasts for the prevalence of whiteness in America based on different definitions.  In all data analysis your data definitions have an outsized impact on what raw data comes out, how it is analyzed, and how it will be interpreted – even by an unbiased researcher.  The forecast showing a white majority disappearing in America by 2042 relies on people identifying as white and no other ethnicity.  It’s equivalent to the one-drop rule from the 19th and 20th centuries in the US.  Under the one-drop rule both parents must be white for someone to be categorized as white, with that rule carrying back into all prior generations.  It’s an archaic definition that lends itself to conservative assumptions.  But there are other ways of looking at things.

Myers and Levy draw attention to their own research on this topic.  They ran a controlled experiment sharing two simulated news stories using similar race projection data based on different definitions of whiteness.

The first mimicked the conventional [one-drop rule] narrative about the decline of non-Hispanic whites. The second …mentioned the rise of intermarriage and reported the Census Bureau’s alternative projection of a more diverse white majority persisting the rest of the century.  …Forty-six percent of white Democrats and a whopping 74 percent of Republicans expressed anger or anxiety when reading [the first story] about the impending white-minority status.  But these negative emotions were far less frequent when participants read the second story about a more inclusive white majority. Only 35 percent of white Democrats and 29 percent of white Republicans expressed anger or anxiousness about this scenario. [Emphasis added, paragraph breaks removed]

In brief, one quarter of Democrats and two-thirds of Republicans who would normally be anxious about the decline of the white majority have more positive feelings about the emerging population of hip mixed-race semi-white people, whom they readily regard as kin.

Change Our Definitions, Change Racism

These findings imply that when we measure ethno-cultural background for Employment Equity purposes, we need to allow people to choose multiple ethnicities.  Also – and this may be controversial – we need to start reporting on the representation of the white population in a manner that empowers the new hybrid definition.  Sympathetic white people are a target audience for equity reporting.

I have a self-image that I’m one of those non-racist people who is unbothered by white decline.  But if I happened to be one of those coastal urbanites who was deluded about their own implicit racism (you know, hypothetically) then this new mindset would affect me.  I look to mixed-race couples and biracial kids and think, yeah, they could totally grow up in my neighbourhood, work with me, and become family, no problem.  It’s a gateway into general tolerance.

By blowing-out binary categories we can think expansively about being human and embrace complexity in an era of rapid change.  We cannot let demagogues simplify us; we need to become contradictory and cosmopolitan people in order to be true to ourselves and be comfortable in our own skin.  Only then can we freely consider all of our options and seek every opportunity that we choose.

[Hat-tip to Guy Kawasaki for sharing the Washington Post article on LinkedIn]

Mini-Me Recruiting: Always Funny, Always Uncomfortable

Mini Me and Me (a.k.a. Verne Troyer) by Bit Boy
Mini Me and Me (a.k.a. Verne Troyer).  Photo courtesy of Bit Boy.

Who hasn’t wanted to clone themselves, especially when deep into a project that leaves a weekend in tatters. Dr. Evil of Austin Powers fame hilariously and awkwardly created Mini-Me as this right-hand man. While Mini-Me failed to carry out Dr. Evil’s plans for world domination, he succeeded in illustrating a major problem in human resources that needs more scrutiny than ever.  The actor Verne Troyer – who played Mini-Me – immortalized an uncomfortable concept.

The hiring of mini-me in organizations is a problem-behaviour caused by two cognitive fallacies.  One is the affinity bias, the liking of people similar to ourselves. The other is the exposure effect, where we like things that we have been merely exposed to. In the readings of cognitive fallacies it becomes clear that the majority of such fallacies are a variant of the “availability heuristic,” when we over-value thoughts that come to mind easily.  If we choose what’s comfortable, we reproduce our own status quo.

However, it’s usually the case that an employer needs a diverse team.  Even the most excellent leaders need people who have different strengths.  In an article at entrepreneur.com, George Deeb asserts;

“Maybe you don’t need a ‘glass half full’ optimist like yourself… Maybe you need a ‘glass half empty’ realist, who will bring a sense of caution to your investment decisions. Or, you may need a similar ‘A-Type Personality’ to lead your sales team efforts… But, maybe a ‘B-Type Personality’ may be a better fit to manage your more introverted team of technology developers. …Maybe what you really need is the opposite of yourself. You need your Anti-Me to help keep yourself organized, on plan and in check. It really comes down to what you see as your personal strengths and weaknesses, and filling in any voids in your skill-sets.” (Emphasis added)

Equity and Inclusion in Hiring Decisions

The most visible consequence of unconscious bias is that organizations hire and promote people in the same demographic category as the hiring manager, increasing the momentum behind historic privilege.  In an article in the Guardian in 2016, Matthew Jenkin notes that the context of a selection interview will have an outsized impact on who is chosen.  If the context is white and middle-class, candidates who are white and middle class will be favoured.

Bias goes beyond blockbuster items like race and social class. Hobbies, personal experiences, and how we dress can be factors too. If the leadership of an organization is “all of one type” it is a reliable sign that the leadership has lost all curiosity, has no self-doubt, and does not take evidence seriously.  The leadership is not reading the news, and if they are, they are only reading it in print.

This is not the mindset of leaders who will make an organization successful in the near future.  Yes, we must achieve indicators of diversity, but we must also foster receptiveness to new information, a curiosity about diverse ideas, and ways in which an individual can be excellent in a manner that might be considered weird.

Why Structured Interviews Matter

The professional association in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), released a paper in 2015 entitled A Head for Hiring: The Behavioural Science of Recruitment and Selection. It looked at, amongst other things, the role of unstructured interviews.  The authors found a study that fed research participants a combination of good evidential information, plus random irrelevant information from an unstructured interview.  The research subjects upgraded the importance of the random irrelevant information and discounted the good information.  “This can be seen as evidence of sense-making – our tendency to identify patterns or detect trends even when they are non-existent.”

It’s not just the interviewers who are at risk of making bad judgment calls. The CIPD paper identified cognitive fallacies in the mind of the interviewee that caused them to self-select away from promising job matches.  And walking into an unfamiliar environment, where they feel like an outsider, can cause job candidates to underperform because of the additional stress.  When people are using their brains, they are vulnerable to issues of cognitive load in which a complex environment exhausts their brain prior to facing decisions.  Those coming from a different context face disadvantage in an environment that might seem “normal” to the host.

Solutions in Diversity Hiring

What is the remedy for these problems?  For one, structured interviews are key, as they narrow the range of evidence to information that is relevant.  Also, we must actively seek contrary evidence; not taking things at face-value, and seeking information that is outside of what is familiar and comfortable.  There is also diversity representation.  Charles Hipps, CEO of e-recruitment company WCN, was quoted in the Guardian article and  “…suggests having team members from the particular group you are trying to attract present during the recruitment process – whether that’s meeting and greeting candidates or on the interview panel.”  Structure a diverse context and it will set a balanced comfort-level with reduced cognitive load.

Employers are also starting to get hard-core, using new tools to improve the selection process.  The Guardian article spoke with one company, Elevate, that “uses algorithms to score every candidate’s CV, previous work experience, skills and education, and assesses their suitability for a role. It then ranks candidates much like Google’s search results…”   Another company, Joinkoru, conducts validated pre-hire assessments which provide candidate scores that are less sensitive to the candidate’s similarity to current employees.  It is also feasible to do blind selection in the process of creating a shortlist, in a manner that obscures the name and sex of the candidate.

Not all of these tools are perfect, and indeed there are emerging risks that algorithms can carry-forward the historic bias of past human behaviours.  The rise of the racist robots is a concern.  We might not be creating cloned versions of ourselves (yet), but we are at serious risk of creating artificial intelligence which has flaws identical to our broader society.

And the technology can be expensive.  Doctor Evil is the only one selling it, and he’s going to charge you (pinky to mouth) one million dollars.

Women’s Financial Security Depends on Their Own Courage

Too little to think twice about jumping. By Rob Briscoe
Too little to think twice about jumping. Photo courtesy of Rob Briscoe.

Does it seem unfair that men can carelessly do what they want with money when women can’t?  Well, it is unfair.  But women’s attitude about money has a huge impact on their financial security.  Fear itself might be causing women to be less financially secure, by weakening their moxie.

In an October 2017 report, Mercer published the report Inside Employees’ Minds – Women and WealthTM.  In brief, women are more worried about financial security than men, and the worry and fear de-motivates women from taking full advantage of programs intended to help them improve their finances.  The report is based on a survey of 3,000 U.S. employees in late 2016.

Financial Wellbeing is Part of Workplace Wellbeing

The report asserts that financial wellbeing is “a core pillar of total well-being.”  Wellbeing is not just about physical and mental health. Our ability to seek the comforts we desire, make meaningful connections with others, and achieve our financial goals are all amongst the things that make us well.  New wellbeing efforts foster self-awareness about our individual goals, and a sense of self-efficacy and autonomy over our lives.  These efforts imply a workplace culture of free-flowing information, respectful discourse, power sharing, and building intrinsic motivation.

In employee engagement surveys, wellbeing is often a hygiene topic.  Hygiene topics are important-when-bad; things such as physical safety or sexual harassment. Hygiene topics are important to identify because the policy imperative is to not to make the topic positive, but to make them “not negative.”  They need to be good enough that you can forget about them.

When employees feel that they lack control over their personal finances, they worry – at home and at work.  People need to learn how to improve their finances if only to stop being distracted by them.  Therefore it may be necessary for employers to express concern about the personal finances of their employees.  And women and men think about their finances differently.

Women’s Financial Courage Affects Their Financial Wellbeing

The analysis shows a major difference between men and women, with men once again coming out ahead.  “Whereas 62% of men scored in the medium-to-high or high range on Mercer’s Financial Wellness Index, only 41% of women scored in this range.”  Why is this so?  The report identified that financial courage is a major driver of financial wellbeing. Forty-nine percent of men exhibit high or medium levels of financial courage, compared to 30% of women.

Financial courage is made up of items such as attitude towards finances, time spent worrying, financial planning preferences, and a person’s self-assessment of their financial knowledge.  It turns out that courage is more important than underlying knowledge, consistent with the trend that personality can be more important than IQ.  Women holding modest-but-accurate self-opinions might be penalizing themselves, because confident men are taking initiative based on their bravado.

Those with low financial courage do things that cause their finances to be worse, such as avoid financial discussions to avoid embarrassment, decline investment opportunities for fear of losing money, and slip into a paralysis of inaction on their finances.  By contrast, people with high financial courage engage in the flip-side of these behaviours in an upward spiral.

Getting Women to Engage in Financial Wellbeing Resources

Imagine how those who lack courage will avoid thinking about it when there is an offer to attend a financial wellbeing class or advisory session.  That reduced awareness leads to reduced engagement in such programs.  Mercer suggests;

“Employers have the opportunity to help their female employees break the cycle of lower financial wellness by helping them build financial courage and become more confident in engaging in their finances. Simply offering women more in the way of financial education is unlikely to have the desired impact.” (Emphasis added)

Employers hoping to set up their employees to be well-and-productive need to prioritize financial courage with targeted programming for women.  So, who are the role models that women would look to while building this courage?

Women Are Building Wealth

Outside of the workplace, women are becoming more prominent investors.  An article in the Economist from March 2018 noted that global wealth held by women is trending from $24 to $72 trillion between 2010 and 2020, with their percentage of global wealth growing from 28% to 32%.  The growth is due to women participating more in the labour force, being better-paid, and benefitting more equally from inheritances.

Women behave differently when they invest.  The Economist cites a study that finds that

“…women outperformed men in the market by one percentage point a year.  The main reason, they argued, was that men were much more likely to be overconfident than women, and hence to carry out unprofitable trades.”

It’s not so much that women need to imitate men’s overconfidence, it’s that they need enough courage to take care of their wealth and then proceed with enough conscientiousness to make good decisions.  Courage and conscientiousness are not contradictory traits, and it’s possible to embody both.  Related to this phenomenon is that one of the first things women do when they get their hands on a bundle of money is to get rid of their money managers and start making investments by themselves.

And in the process they make different decisions about their own money.

Women Lead Socially Responsible Investing

Women are far more likely to be socially-responsible investors, with the Economist citing Morgan Stanley research noting that 84% of women (relative to 67% amongst men) are interested in social or environmental goals.  Funds specializing in responsible investing note that women tend to be the trailblazers.  And one of women’s criteria is to apply a gender lens.

Beyond the evidence that bias is bad for business, treating women fairly is increasingly seen as a sign that a company is diligent, responsible, and keeping apace of emerging trends.  A comparison to the environmental lens is helpful.  One investment fund

“…dropped Volkswagen because the carmaker scored poorly on corporate governance well before its value was hit by the revelation that it was cheating on emissions tests, [and] in future it hopes information about problems such as sexual harassment could help it spot firms with a ‘toxic’ management culture before a scandal hits the share price.”

Independent of whether “being good” is a core business goal, investors are watching for whether a company’s stock will tank because of regulatory failure, lawsuit, or customer disengagement following a public relations meltdown.  Investors, too, can be concerned about hygiene topics and women investors are ahead of the curve.

Yet we can still choose to be good, for the sake of being good.  Social change comes from all directions; from governments, social movements, and sometimes from investors.  But usually there’s that one person who has decided there’s something wrong in their life, and it’s time to take action.  That brave and conscientious person can be you.