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When Employees Think the Boss Is Unfair They’re More Likely to Disengage and Leave

Corporate America is spending enormous sums of money on unconscious bias awareness training. But despite this “boom” in bias awareness, women and minorities remain underrepresented in management, especially compared to their educational accomplishments.

It’s impossible to know when managers act on unconscious biases. But it is possible to ascertain when an individual perceives bias against them. In gathering research for our “Disrupt Bias, Drive Value” report, we decided to focus our attention on the employees — particularly, their experiences.

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Managers and supervisors make spot judgments about their direct reports every day, and employees sense whether those decisions are unfair. “People pick up on bias when they see opportunities handed to colleagues for unclear reasons,” Kate Burke, head of human capital and chief talent officer at AllianceBernstein, advised us.

We wanted to see if employees who perceive bias at work, unfounded or not, are more likely to disengage or to consider leaving their companies altogether. We partnered with NORC at the University of Chicago to survey 3,570 college-educated professionals working full time in white-collar professions. We asked how they assess themselves in six categories (ability, ambition, commitment, connections, emotional intelligence and executive presence) and how they think their superiors see them. If employees’ self-ratings were positive but they perceived that their superiors’ judgment was negative, we concluded that they perceived bias.

We analyzed the answers from the 1,918 respondents at large companies. Across the board, 9.2% of respondents perceive bias in the way their superiors judge their potential on two or more categories. People of color were more likely to perceive bias in two or more elements than whites; among foreign-born employees, those born in Latin America also displayed a high rate of perceived bias in two or more categories.

Some results were surprising. Men were more likely to perceive bias than women, and Asians were more likely to perceive bias than black or Latino respondents. We also found that perceiving bias on at least two dimensions correlates with more frequent reports of emotional distress, higher employee disengagement and lower employee retention.

It is unclear whether these perceptions are reflecting true instances of managerial bias. Even so, they tell us that employees are suffering and imposing real costs on their employers.

Managers should be aware of this discontent in their teams and take steps to correct it through solutions such as inclusive leadership, diversity in executive ranks and access to sponsorship. It’s time to enlist managers as allies in diversity and inclusion efforts, rather than accusing them as perpetrators of discrimination.

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