What happened at the U. S. Open on September 8, 2018 is a metaphor for implicit bias in progressive discipline in the workplace. Yes, Serena Williams had a meltdown at the Open and she threw her racquet. The issue is whether rules are uniformly enforced, even by the same umpire that penalized Ms. Williams. According to Christine Brennan of USA Today, the answer is “No!” According to Heavy,com, Umpire Ramos had worse verbal abuse from Djokovic and Kyrgios. The men were not penalized.
For progressive discipline, management has been told to use the broken record technique with ‘problem employees’ and, if the employee wants to talk about the behavior of other employees to let the employee know that we are here to discuss “their behavior, not others’ behavior.” However, who is seen as the ‘problem employee;’ and who exhibits outrageous behavior that we give a pass.
I worked with an organization that wanted to terminate a black male employee who told a white employee, “if you don’t sit down and get out of my face.” The same organization defined two white male employees having a dragged out, knock down fight as ‘horseplay’.
In another organization, the rule was that associates sign out on the board before going into the field. Associates worked in a team of two. In one division, there were only two black employees. They were women and they were a team. For efficiency, teams routinely phoned or e-mailed that they were working in the field for the day rather than coming into the office. However, management required that the two black women physically come into the office. The two black women also had to list which field contacts they were scheduled to see that week. The other teams did not have to provide a list in advance.
When the black women complained about the different treatment and emphasized that they were working hard and making their numbers; the running joke of management was “working hard or hardly working.” Or management joked, “you know you’re shopping at the malls and having long lunches.”
In a third company, minorities complained that they were docked routinely if they returned late from a break, while white employees were given a pass. Implicit bias may explain the scrutiny given to minorities and women and the double jeopardy for being a woman and a person of color. Or in Serena Williams’ case, the favoritism given to male players.
Before deciding how you are going to react to a particular infraction, I recommend that you take a mindful pause and visualize a white male or your ‘go to person’ exhibiting the same behavior.
When rules are made to be broken for white males, you don’t begin the enforcement of the rules with women or minorities. This is disparate treatment. To be equitable, you make an announcement at an organizational/team meeting. Announce that we have been laxed in the enforcement of the rules, but that going forward the rules will be enforced.
Please note all people have biases. Their unconscious biases are their blind spots. Neuroscience has shown that through evolution the brain is wired with a them-us prejudice network. Monitor that the rules are enforced equitably. Don’t rush to defend management and lose sight that when management is exhibiting implicit bias, the organization is vulnerable. Remember that it is a gift for someone to identify your implicit bias. You can only mitigate a bias, if you are aware of the bias. Monitor and share the gift.