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How to root out unconscious bias in layoffs

Protocol Workplace

Welcome back to our Workplace newsletter. Heading into a long summer weekend hits different with a looming recession and continued layoffs and hiring slowdowns in the tech industry, but scroll down for a little optimism on the hiring front. Today: how to avoid unconscious bias, how to take care of your current employees after a layoff, and the job market might not be as bad as it looks.

Check your unconscious bias

Layoffs aren’t going away. Since last week, job cuts have continued to surface at companies including Tesla, Netflix, Backstage Capital and Substack.

And while business needs drive job cuts, decisions about which individuals to keep aboard — as with so many other employment decisions — can be influenced by unconscious bias.

“You start with the theoretical: OK, we’re going to be business-minded. We’re going to be objective,” said Kieran Snyder, co-founder and CEO of the augmented writing software maker Textio. “But in the end, there’s human beings making decisions.”

I spoke with a few experts about how to keep unconscious bias out of layoff decisions. Here’s what they told me.

Use objective criteria where possible. Employees should be subject to ongoing review so managers have clear ways to evaluate them, said Chris Zatzick, professor at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University.

  • But, Zatzick warned, performance evaluations themselves can also be tainted by unconscious bias. Remedying this takes work long before layoffs start.
  • Textio has found a pattern of biased feedback across organizations, identifying differences in the language managers use to give performance feedback across gender, race and age. For example, women get 22% more personality feedback than men, and are 11 times as likely to report being described as “abrasive,” Textio found.
  • Making sure performance feedback is specific and actionable by giving examples and offering alternatives is key to keeping it objective, Snyder said.

Train decision-makers on unconscious bias. Many leaders are aware of the potential for unconsciously privileging employees based on traits like their race, age or gender. But many aren’t aware of their own biases, and should be challenged to confront them.

  • In a hybrid environment, consider whether workers who spend more time at the office may be treated differently. Unless office attendance is a stated expectation, beware of letting proximity bias affect layoff decisions.
  • Include multiple decision-makers in the process, and wherever possible, ensure diverse leadership is involved, Zatzick said.

Allow for open discussion and dissent. Leaders won’t necessarily agree on which employees should be retained. Ideally, execs should be comfortable asking questions and pushing back, Zatzick said.

  • “You want to have an open, psychologically safe environment where people can express dissenting opinions: ‘Why is this person on your list? Can you tell me more about it?’” Zatzick said. “‘Oh, those don’t really sound like our criteria, so we need to be careful about including people on our list that don’t meet our criteria.’”
  • Natalie Zhao, also a professor at the Beedie School of Business, agreed. “Leaders should be really candid,” Zhao said. “Human beings make mistakes, so be willing to honestly talk about it.”
  • Creating an environment that allows for this type of dissent should take place before it’s time to make tough decisions like job cuts, however.

Because unconscious bias can affect all kinds of personnel decisions, from hiring and promotions to layoffs, it’s crucial that organizations work to root it out along the way rather than waiting until a crisis moment.

“The challenge for companies is you can’t always know ahead of time when you’re going to be in those moments,” Snyder said. “If you haven’t done the continual work, then it’s much harder to be fair and equitable when those moments do come up.”

Allison Levitsky, reporter (email| twitter)

Survivor’s guilt

Layoffs have swept across the tech industry as companies reckon with financial uncertainty and whispers of a recession. Taking care of laid-off employees is critical; companies like Carvana and Klarna have come under fire for carelessness with mass Zoom call layoffs and minimal severance packages. But another demographic of workers often flies under the radar: the employees who make it through. These are the folks charged with holding the company together, picking up their former co-workers’ assignments and maintaining morale amid hiring or salary freezes. Impostor syndrome, mixed with the uncertainty around possible future layoffs, leads to a sort of survivor’s guilt. Whether or not managers listen to their concerns can make or break a company’s culture. “We’re being asked to just believe in the company,” an employee at OneTrust told me. “Just have faith. It’s hard to do that.”

Read the full story.

— Lizzy Lawrence, reporter (email| twitter)


Why full-stack observability should be a priority as enterprises face the next wave of innovation: Full-stack observability with business context enables companies to digest IT performance to easily identify where they can prioritize performance and tackle issues that strategically impact their bottom line. This correlation of technology and business data allows IT leaders to make smarter, strategic decisions based on actual business impact.

Read more from AppDynamics

To apply or not to apply

Recession or no recession, workers are still seeking greener pastures. Hiring software company Greenhouse recently surveyed 1,500 U.S. employees and found that despite many respondents’ sentiments about a spiraling economy, they’re still optimistic about the state of hiring. So if you thought a recession would bring a possible end to The Great Resignation, you might want to think again.

  • 57% of survey respondents said they would actively look for a new job if we enter an economic recession in 2022, according to Greenhouse’s Candidate Economic Sentiment Report.
  • 70% of job candidates responded that they remain optimistic about the job market.
  • 66% of people said they would look for a new job if their pay was reduced during an economic downturn.
  • More than 75% of workers said they are less likely to work for a company that has made mass layoffs in the past.
— Amber Burton, reporter (email | twitter)

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Why full-stack observability should be a priority as enterprises face the next wave of innovation:Organizations that have already started the move to a full-stack observability approach are seeing results and clear return on investment (ROI). In the AppDynamics research, 86% of technologists reported greater visibility across their IT stack over the last 12 months when implementing full-stack

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Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to workplace@protocol.com.

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