How You May Unintentionally Discriminate With Expectations

How to be more inclusive with your expectations at work.

Posted Jan 24, 2021

Previously, I described examples of how we may be unintentionally discriminating against others and I discussed the language we use and the behaviours we exemplify. Combining language and behaviour, we may hurt others by the expectations we set for them. 

 Christina Morillo/Pexels
Source: Christina Morillo/Pexels

Sometimes this looks like a nonverbal cue of one person getting a brow furrow or a frustrated sigh when they don't meet a deadline versus another person who gets sympathy or empathy and asked how you can better support them. Other times it's disciplining one employee when they don't follow the specific procedure or process while you reward another for their ingenuity and gumption.

Perhaps in your performance review, some employees have to check every box while others are okay if they did the majority of tasks required.

Or do only those with kids get the option to work from home and/or have flexible work arrangements? Similarly, is it only those who don't work flexibly (or who are in the office for the longest hours) that get considered for promotions and development opportunities?

Changing your requirements of expectations depending on the person is troublesome for employees, as they may find you unpredictable and/or don't see things as fair. It's even more troublesome when those people with higher expectations are those who are already marginalized at work or in society.

As leaders, we need to ensure we are being fair to all employees. Being fair doesn't mean everyone has the exact same requirements, it means that there is equity. That is, everyone has different strengths and development opportunities. Therefore, expectations should be based on equally stretching people's abilities to reach goals, while those goals can be different. Or perhaps it's providing a different type of support or resources to individuals to help close development gaps.

Some ways you can check your expectations and whether they are fair are:

  • Examine the goals you have asked each employee to complete. Are they equitable?
  • Examine the rewards (e.g., praise, flexible work, bonus payments) you have given to employees, are they commensurate with performance?
  • Do a "gut check" of are there people who you trust immediately versus others that have to earn it (or you are skeptical of). Are there any themes of who has to earn it?
  • Ask for feedback on whether people feel their goals are fair given the parameters that are set by your performance management processes and the strategic direction of the team/company.
  • Examine whether you are fostering 'ruthless competition' amongst your employees and trade that in favour of team-based goals and rewards. Shift the competition to be with competitors, not colleagues.
  • Have a third party (boss, colleague, HR) examine your goals and rewards to look for equitable choices. If possible, remove names from the process to examine it as objectively as possible.
  • Set the tone by promoting organizational values centered on safety, respect, humanity, growth, and work-life flexibility rather than strength and stamina (for example, the ability to work long hours).

Remember that equity isn't a one-time event, it is a continuous process. Fortunately, as performance management is also a continuous process, building equity checks into the existing procedures can help ensure timely adjustments to ensure employees are happy and goals are achieved.