“I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.” This gem often is attributed to Boss Tweed, the notorious American political manipulator. In any competition, the surest way to win is to narrow down the list of those in the running. If you are the only viable candidate, you’re in. Competitions often are unfair, but restricting who can race to the top is especially important because it escalates bias to the highest levels.
The escalation of bias goes on every day the world over. What you may not realize is that it happens especially when people think they are being fair. Let me explain.
Slogans like “We are an equal opportunity employer” are seen in many companies, especially in the United States. Although such slogans are not always lived up to, in many places things have improved compared to the past. Although racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination endure, in many industries we are seeing efforts to hire more fairly. But what about promotion?
The executive suite remains difficult to penetrate for women and minorities in the US, despite the greater fairness in hiring at lower levels. In what feels like a “bait and switch,” we hire for diversity, only to stay with the same old bias when it comes to promotion. This no doubt feels pretty unfair to those who might have merited a promotion, but were passed over because of a superficial characteristic like race or sex. Yet the hidden effect is on the privileged, who then enjoy the escalation of bias.
To see why, consider what happens to someone in the traditionally favored group – white men in the case of the US. For them, hiring equally and then promoting unequally escalates bias. After all, when it comes to choosing the next boss, blessed are those who are surrounded by "unpromotables." If race and sex matter for promotion, then the sure bet is to be the only white man in the running. So it is that hiring policies meant to improve fairness, ironically, may be triggering the escalation of bias.
The escalation of bias operates in many walks of life: The law firm that hires for diversity, but then promotes to partner those who get on with the old boys. The technology firm that boasts of a sex-blind and color-blind hiring process, run by a traditional-looking C-suite and board. We even see it in global competitions among companies. Firms are often allowed to enter another country to compete, only to find out once there that they have restricted access to government permits and the like.
In each of these situations, you get in through a fair process - but you move up through a biased one. When we trigger the escalation of bias, the privileged dominate the race to the top.