Raise the Red Flag! Concerns over Gender and the Tech Industry

Recently I read an article in USA Today entitled “Danger of Digital Divide….Lack of Diversity could undercut Silicon Valley.”  It spurred me to think about what appears to be a growing divide between men and women in not only the tech industry but tech-type jobs in general.

First of all I would like to make a disclaimer here.  I am not a tech expert.  I still don’t understand “the cloud” in its totality, and I am one of those folks who take advantage of all of the intro classes that the Apple store has for its Mac users. My IT go-to person is my 16 year old son. What it takes me an hour or two to grapple with takes him mere seconds over my shoulder.  “Really Dad?” “Okay, whatever.”

What I can hopefully claim as an area of expertise – that my brilliant son has obviously not yet mastered—lies in the old concept of treating people the way you want to be treated.  At work, it means not only treating people fairly but assigning jobs according to their talents, not their gender or race.  And right now I’m seeing the mistreatment of women at a rate I’ve never quite seen before.

After reading the USA Today article, I decided to do a bit more in-depth research. I couldn’t help but think that we have regressed in our endeavor to not only bring diversity to the workplace but to treat people with both equality and respect.  My online search using the terms gender and tech got me enough articles to keep me busy for the foreseeable future, a future that may not welcome women “into the elite boys club” that the start up tech industry seems to foster…unless we intervene now to stop this practice.

Before we go any further, let me say that self-disclosure is warranted here if I am to keep this newsletter honest.  These articles grabbed my attention in the first place because of something that happened to someone personally close to me.  Being one of the most creative people I know, this Generation Y’er brings a unique skill set to her job in the robotics industry.   Blending her talents in photography, art, event planning, social media marketing, and project management puts her in somewhat rarified air for leading the marketing efforts in emerging new technologies, but it has been a battle the entire way.

Her newly formed marketing department recently moved to a larger office space to accommodate growth and the influx of new employees.  Like shoppers lined six deep for the opening of a new department store, so were the employees lined up to choose the ideal location of their desk.  Just like the gold rush of 1849, those who staked a claim to their preferred area and desk had certain inalienable rights.  One person however was excluded from this fun little free choice, and it happened to be the only woman in the group.

“I have you assigned to a desk already,” said the director of the department.

“Oh?”

“Yes, I want you to sit next to the door.”

“Why so, if I may ask?  I was hoping to “pitch a tent” next to my marketing peers.”

“You are our office manager aren’t you?”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.  I’m in marketing and event planning.”

“No, I think you should sit near the door.  You not only look good and make a good impression to visitors, but we need you to sign for packages as they come in the door.”

“But this is not what I was hired for and not what I’ve been doing the past six months.”

“Nevertheless, this is what I need you to do.  You are organized and detail-oriented.”

“I’m treated differently because I’m a woman,” she told me over the phone.  “It has nothing to do with the quality of my work.  It’s as though they just want me to smile and wave.  How can they dismiss my contributions and re-assign me to a job that I wasn’t even hired for?  Yes, I could probably be a good office manager, but I love what I’m doing and I’m good at it.  Why should I do something I don’t love just because I’m a woman.

By all the articles and accounts this is not an isolated incident.  The tech industry is clearly under fire.  And it surprises me that young men in their 20s and 30s are the ones most often exhibiting bias, not the older baby-boomers who entered the workforce before gender bias was ever uttered.  The tech gender gap is pervasive.  There is simply not a great deal of gender diversity to be found.  Frankly, I have had a fair number of well-intentioned employers tell me that they are having a hard time getting female applicants at anywhere near the same rate as men.  But this is not an article imploring you to do a better job of recruiting.  More to the point, shouldn’t we be treating the women we have with the same respect and professionalism they are due?

So, what should you do?

-For those of you in start-ups, get your HR infrastructure in place early!  This is a no brainer, and yet in my work as a consultant I am still coming across those young companies scurrying about to get the work done, but with no sight of HR on the premises.

-Go out of your way to ask people how things are at work.  Ask both men and women.  Sometimes it is the men who will open up about the treatment of women first.

-Have the courage to call out the things that are wrong.  Don’t think that unequal treatment will just go away

-Talk about inclusiveness.  Make it a priority and a value. Dialogue about this issue is the first step.

-Make sure women are not given tasks simply based on gender stereotypes.  Help everyone do what they do best every day.  If you do, you will more likely have happy and productive “campers.”

Fortunately most of the people we work with are already doing these things, and I applaud you for your good work. For all of the rest of you, well, you know what to do.

From Control to Cooperation: Changing the Performance Appraisal System

(Third and LAST article in a series on transitioning from performance appraisals to coaching)

As I wind up my series on using coaching as a means of boosting employee performance, I have a question for you:

“What is the actual effect created among your employees by your appraisal system?”  Metrics could help answer this question.

Ask yourself……..

Do you have indicators that people are more motivated as a result of the appraisals or are you more fearful of what would happen if you didn’t require them?

Do your supervisors actually use appraisals for coaching purposes to boost performance, or do they merely “pencil whip” the appraisals in order to comply with HR’s mandate?

Do your appraisals actually improve communication between supervisors and employees, or do you think those effective relationships that do exist are more likely established in informal meetings as supervisor/employee pass each other in the hallway?

By the way, with regard to the common use of appraisals to support termination and legal documentation, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that ultimately they work against the organization as much or more than they help support the termination decision.  So what’s a good organization to do?  How do we hold people accountable?  How do we motivate people?  How do we decide who deserves a merit increase?  How do we give people feedback about their performance?   How do we evaluate who should stay and who should go?

Most of us ask these questions and— in all honesty—it may be that these very questions are part of the reason we are having a hard time letting go of the appraisal process.  Why?  Because they reflect our basic belief that we need to control the activities of our employees, otherwise they won’t be motivated or responsible.  The sad disconnect is that our need for tighter controls communicates a lack of trust.  This, I suggest, is the crux of the problem.  It is not that our intentions are bad.  As stated before, the intent underlying performance evaluations is good.  We want people to communicate better.  We want supervisors and employees to have good working relationships.  But the very nature of performance evaluations as a forced and judgmental act presents a divisive element between supervisors and their employees; between department heads and supervisors.

Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins, in their book “Abolishing Performance Evaluations:  Why They Backfire and What To Do Instead,” provide an interesting list of unsurfaced beliefs inherent to performance evaluations:

Belief:   Without control, people will withhold their best efforts

Counter evidence is that people perform better when they experience appreciation, the opportunity to do what they do best, and choice in how to go about their work.

Belief:   People will not, of their own volition, take responsibility to develop and improve their performance.

Counter evidence is that people want to do a good job and be a part of an effective work system.

Belief:   Holding people accountable with a written formal process is an effective form of control.

Counter evidence is that people will behave in a responsible, effective manner if they have a good relationship with their immediate supervisor who outlines clear expectations and who is congruent between what they say and what they do. 

Belief:   Documented processes…will motivate people to improve their performance

Counter evidence is that employees experience documented processes as judgmental and subjective.

Although your supervisors may be the most well-meaning people on the planet, good intentions will not supplant the control message of appraisal.  So what should you do?

TRANSITIONING FROM APPRAISAL TO COACHING

The transition from a control-oriented appraisal system to a voluntary coaching system is neither fast nor simple, but if you have evidence that supervisors procrastinate in conducting the appraisals or that a majority of employees express both fear and loathing then you may be up for a process that increases trust and creates a greater sense of interdependency between the various levels within the organization.

While there is no cookie-cutter outline for making this transition, the following list can give you a basic idea of the progression that may get you on the road toward an alternative to performance appraisals.

1.  Assess the need for change – consider whether you have plenty of evidence already or whether an anonymous employee climate survey would give you information on not only how people feel about appraisals, but what particular issues are troublesome.  Would the loathing exist regardless of how you try to improve the appraisal system or is it simply that a few supervisors are on a power trip?

2.  Get the blessings of upper management first– making this change is difficult enough without heading down this path only to have a cease-and-desist order put a halt to things.  Have a sit down with management first and inform them of your findings.  If possible, ask for an official charge in written form regarding what the design team is charged to do.

3.  Form a design team – select a team that represents the entire organization.  In discussions, ask the team to review these questions:

A.  What are the purposes, goals, and objectives of the current appraisal system?

B.  What results and outcomes have we seen and experienced?

Example:

Focuses on weakness and deficiencies

Standards are inconsistently applied from one supervisor to another

People are not listening; preoccupied with the bottom line

Outcome:

Causes fear and apprehension

Ratings seem arbitrary and subjective

Demoralizes people, creates resentment

Supervisors just go through the motions

C.  What are the characteristics and features of our appraisal system?

Example:  

A once a year event

A mandated/forced activity

Feedback is documented, receiver has to sign it

Performance is rated

Rating is based on a time period

If all of the above is true, then pursue this path:

1.  Design a new process– Discuss what you are trying to accomplish.  What are the goals and objectives and how will you know when a change has occurred and whether it is successful.  The following are some elements to consider in the change from an appraisal to a coaching system:

A.  Train supervisors on coaching and feed-forward methods rather than feedback.

B.  Frequently encourage all employees to get the instruction and coaching instruction they need when they need it.

C.  Frequently coach the coaches (supervisors) by instructing supervisors to focus on exceptional performance and to offer recognition and appreciation on the spot.  The change to a coaching system does not exclude reprimands or termination.  Reprimands should be on-time and at the time of the infraction.  Remember that using the appraisal process at the end of the year is a poor method for increasing motivation.  The book “Crucial Conversations” is an excellent book by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler is an excellent source of training for supervisors in how to say what needs to be said while preserving the relationship.

D.  Train employees also.  Train them in how to receive coaching.  It is just as important to be able to receive coaching in an effective manner as it is to deliver coaching in an effective manner.  Let them know that the old appraisal system has gone bye-bye and that it is partially up to them to request coaching.

Please understand that I have provided you with merely a skeleton of the change process.  Several elements would be beyond the brief intent of this newsletter.  If you would like to discuss further, please feel free to contact me.  I will enjoy hearing from you!