What I learned from taking Facebook's workplace bias course

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 18, 2015
I took a Facebook workplace bias course, and got my share of surprises for my trouble. Here's my critique.

When I was younger, I thought I was an open-minded person who didn't have much prejudice or bias. Fortunately, some teachers a lot wiser than I was gracefully kicked my ass.

Bias is tricky because so much of it is unconscious. Even with intellectual efforts, we aren't going to get rid of bias. Sometimes I think of bias like a dirty car windshield. We all have it, and it obstructs our views to some extent. With effort, we may be able to reduce some of the dirt and be more aware of where our blind spots lie. But none of us has a perfect view - or anything close to it.

Bias plays a big role in the enterprise media world I toil in (a topic I'll return to in a future piece). It also has a big impact on corporate workplaces. I was very interested to learn that Facebook has released its own internal managing workplace bias instructional videos to the public. Here's my review/critique.

Humbled by the implicit associations test

Prior to going through the video series, I took an unconscious bias test at implicit.harvard.edu. These tests have been around for a while, and they serve them up randomly. I was given the racial bias test. I have some questions about the tests' methodology, but needless to say, the results were humbling. I'm not alone. These tests (called IATs) have found:

  • Gender IAT - 76 percent more readily associate “males”with “career” and“females” with“family”.
  • Race IAT - 75 percent have an implicit preference for white people over black people
  • Disability IAT - 75 percent have a preference for able-bodied people

The IATs are not intended to make you feel like a bigot if you got an unflattering result. The goal is to make you realize that even the best of intentions isn't an eradication of internal prejudices.

Facebook's managing bias course - why it matters

Facebook employee trainer Maxine Williams kicks off the introductions/first impressions video with an important point: not all bias is bad. Biases are driven by stereotypes, and stereotypes go back to the most primitive parts of our brain.

But those primitive parts are pretty darn important in a survival context. Williams uses the example of snakes: when we encounter a bunch of snakes, it's probably better if we assume that all the snakes are poisonous. The human brain is processing a ton of information. Categorizing into friends-versus-enemies in real time is part of how we classify quickly so we can respond. But as she later points out, stereotypes are sometimes right, usually wrong, and almost always incomplete.

As biases merge in the workplace, the results can be downright insidious. The goal of the Facebook training is to create awareness on how these biases can manifest, and make recommendations on how they can be counteracted. As I see it, the goal of such education is not to foster a patronizing compensatory behavior. Rather, it's to ensure that diverse people get the same chance to prove themselves. From there, merit should dictate our fortunes, idealistic as that may sound.

I'm not going to dwell on all the stats covered in the training, but the sum of the data is sobering. A few examples:

  • U.S. orchestras revealed women’s odds of making it past the first round of auditions increased 50% with blind auditions.
  • A study of identical resumes – one with a man’s name and one with a woman’s name – found that 79% of applicants with a man’s name vs. only 49% of those with a woman’s name were ‘worthy of hire’.
  • Resumes with white-sounding names received 50% more calls for interviews than identical resumes with black-sounding names. A “white” name is equivalent to about eight more years of experience.

The Facebook video series contains a quick intro from Lori Goler, Facebook's "VP of People." Then there is a fifteen minute "introduction and first impressions" video, followed by four videos that explore four kinds of workplace bias, "Stereotypes and Performance Bias," "Performance Attribution Bias," "Competency/Likeability Bias," and "Maternal Bias."

One strength of Facebook's presentation, covered by Facebook trainer "Mike" in the first impressions video (9:00 mark), is the impact that even a small change in bias in the workplace can have. Mike refers to a simulation of a very small, one percent performance bias, which ends up tipping the scales significantly on the distribution of women in leadership roles.

In other words, "small changes can have a big impact." That's appealing, because few of us have time to overhaul our attitudes and re-evaluate our behavior from the ground up. Knowing that small changes in attitude and behavior can make a big difference is key to making the corporate case to pursue these issues.

One of the most potent aspects of the Facebook videos is how the collective impact of bias can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, as people feel the negative impact of bias, for example in the lack of executives of color, they might lose motivation to work as hard at their jobs, knowing their chances of merit-based recognition are diminished. Then they might begin to play into a stereotypical perception. Or, alternately, they might leave the organization entirely, resulting in a drain of high-caliber talent.

Is there a competitive case for diversity?

One underdeveloped aspect of this video series is the business case for diversity. After all, the goal of a merit-based workplace is a diverse workplace, where all backgrounds would have a chance to contribute. But does that make teams better? Does that make the organization better? If we can conclusively say "yes," we have a much better argument for investing in a less biased workplace.

In the final video, Facebook does cite a couple of stats from a 2012 CEB study. As per those findings, diverse and inclusive workforces demonstrate:

  • 1.12x more discretionary effort
  • 1.19x greater intent to stay
  • 1.57x more collaboration among teams
  • 1.42x greater team commitment

Facebook also cited a 2013 study from Talent Innovation which found that employees of diverse organizations were:

  • 60 percent more likely to see their ideas developed or prototyped
  • 75 percent more likely to see their innovation implemented
  • 70 percent more likely to have captured a new market in the past year
  • 45 percent more likely to have improved market share in past year

These stats strike me as a bit dreamy, but it does provide some idea of how the business impact of diversity could be measured. Other resources: Marilyn Pratt, who worked tirelessly at SAP on issues of diversity during her tenure there, wrote on this topic. SAP Mentor Thorsten Franz, a mainstay at Pratt's inclusion and design thinking seminars, also blogged on why he believes inclusion drives innovation.

My take

Not all of the response to Facebook's managing bias course has been positive. Venture Beat nailed it in this devastating Onion-like headline, Facebook, still overwhelmingly white and male, releases diversity training to help you unlearn bias. A doctor who says he is studying unconscious bias critiqued the training for not acknowledging the stubbornness of unconscious bias (his blog also contains links to a number of resources).

I didn't attempt to cover the four different areas of workplace bias Facebook digs into, so I recommend watching them to get nuance. Overall, I felt the videos did a better job of outlining the problem than proposing solutions. That's a weakness of the implicit associations test as well, which dumps you on a page with their verdict. They don't much else - except the suggestion to "reflect" on the findings. The IAT even admits they are still figuring out how to turn their data into actionable steps for change.

Facebook focuses on making change through "bias interruptions," either at the personal or organizational level. In theory, that helps to cultivate diversity (here is a PDF link to Facebook's "What you can do" recommendations.) My own view? Diversity is definitely a competitive advantage, but with these caveats:

  • Diversity is about much more than easily-identifiable traits. Even four white men can be incredibly diverse in their culture, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexuality and so on.
  • Diversity can be measured and aspired to demographically, and it makes sense to discuss it in those terms. But diversity is also a state of mind, if you will - an intellectual ideal we can all pursue, though perhaps never achieve.
  • If we accept a limited view of our "privilege" or lack of privilege as dictating outcomes, we run the risk of depriving ourselves of the challenge to excel and push our own envelopes. Lifting/mentoring others and achieving our creative potential are equally worthy pursuits, and, ideally, interconnected.
  • Without incorporating diverse feedback early into design and policy decisions - including the feedback of external constituents - the competitive edge of diversity will be squandered. A more diverse constituency is just a starting point. After that, your culture determines how much of an edge that diversity is.

The argument we are all biased is true, but it is not an acceptable excuse to stop challenging ourselves intellectually to grow, change, and unlearn limiting views. To that end, I really liked this author's definition of diversity as a strategic advantage:

The best organizations recognize that beyond race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, diversity also applies to thought, skill, and passions. Differences are appreciated, but the corporate culture provides space for challenging differences in search of the best business solutions. In this environment, people can advocate their point of view passionately, even if it differs from the status quo. Ultimately, diversity includes everyone, regardless of background.

I would add that individuals can become more self-aware by putting themselves in fish-out-of-water situations. For one year in college, I was the only white American male in a dorm apartment of ten global and racially diverse individuals. The next year I was the only man, white or otherwise, in a third world feminism class. These folks did not hold back to spare my feelings or cultural ignorance.

I did it to push my own intellectual boundaries. I'll never forget the astonishing and unlikely friendships that developed. It doesn't make me free of bias any way. And I'm not gonna lie - I got called on my shit many, many times. But it made me a bit wiser about the dirt in my own windshield. Never get too comfortable.

Of all the recommendations made in the videos, the one I liked the best was the simplest, and it was from Mike, who said, "become a scientist of your own behavior." I like it. It implies a willingness to follow the truth without clobbering yourself. Guilt is absolutely the wrong motivator. Legal motivators aren't much better, though I grant their necessity.

Mike also pointed out that relaxing into the idea we aren't such bad people is a fail also: "There's a difference between not being a part of the problem, and being part of the solution." I would add that attending training like this isn't being part of the solution either. If anything, it's just a very small step. I don't know what the solution is, but I know that enterprises need to think about it.

Image credit: Drawn business icons over the concrete wall. © denisismagilov - Fotolia.com

Disclosure: SAP is a diginomica premier partner. I met Marilyn Pratt and Thorsten Franz during the years I served as an SAP Mentor, a volunteer community role.

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