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Corporate Law Departments

How CLOs can mitigate bias as they move to a “remote-first” paradigm

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 5 minute read

There are ways for chief legal officers to mitigate the bias some workers may feel as businesses move toward a "remote-first" paradigm that integrates remote work into the mainstream

The return-to-office process is still murky. With the occupancy rate in office buildings nationally hovering just above 40% and half of workers indicating that they will seek a remote position in their next job, it may be obvious that the preference for hybrid work among workers is not going away any time soon.

Indeed, in a spot poll of roughly 30 in-house lawyers in the San Francisco Bay Area in September, all of them indicated that their companies and teams were either fully remote or hybrid.

Yet, despite the prevalence of remote or hybrid workplaces, the potential biases that can impact staff members who are working mostly remote or hybrid still remains. The types of biases include: i) implicit bias, which is a form of bias that occurs automatically and unintentionally and affects judgments, decisions, and behaviors; ii) proximity bias, which is the tendency to favor people who are closer in time and space; and iii) affinity bias, an unconscious bias that causes people to gravitate toward others who appear to be like them.

For those employees who are negatively impacted by these biases in a hybrid setting, management’s poor behavior can be experienced as microaggressions. This can be keenly felt during remote of hybrid meetings, especially if those running the meetings ignore remote attendees, don’t invite the more introverted or junior people to contribute, avoid eye contact, or allow extroverts to consistently dominate the conversation.

Management should also be careful not to ignore virtual meeting invites or consistently reschedule remote meetings because ignoring emails, video call invites, recurring meetings, and more — especially when done by key partners — is a form of bias that can prevent people from doing their jobs well in a remote-first world.

Forging partnerships with other corporate functions

Chief legal officers (CLOs) have an influential role to play in mitigating this bias not just within their team as a manager, but more importantly across their company through the creation of policies, norms and behaviors. Here are some of the ways CLOs are attacking bias at the company level:

    • Setting expectations that human resources (HR) need to work closely with the law department — This includes not only forging an organically strong relationship, but establishing a top-down expectation that HR should look to the company’s law department as a key input and decision-maker for company policies and approach. This should be a priority, given the important role of the department in mitigating biases company-wide, suggests Megan Niedermeyer, General Counsel & Corporate Secretary at Fivetran, who joined the software company during the pandemic as its first legal leader.
    • Focusing on policies and practices that can help reduce bias — These exercises include pay equity audits, which analyze median compensation for each level by department, location, function, and team to understand if those employees with underrepresented identities are receiving lower salaries. Niedermeyer says this was one of the first tasks she tackled with outside employment counsel when coming to Fivetran. In addition to pay equity audits, in-house counsel should be adequately involved in the performance review calibration process, reviewing both median timing to promotion and pay increases for each level by team. In this way, the law department can determine if bias is creeping in and can use this information for sensitive conversations if this is occurring, she says.
    • Leveraging technology to build a culture of feedback — Similarly, CLOs as the chief risk officers of their companies by default, can impact how a return-to-office policy is going, especially when some corporations have had a policy that they’ve had to review or roll back. Niedermeyer explains how she used a strong partnership with HR and a technology platform to increase employee feedback on how the return-to-office process was going, as well as allowing anonymous reporting of incidents to obtain better data on potential negative cultural hot spots. Indeed, workplace harassment in the digital realm, which can be as high as 40% of those who experience work-related harassment, is an unfortunate side effect of more remote working.

Modeling inclusion as an aspect of C-level culture

CLOs, through their conduct and leadership style, can be a model cultural promoter for demonstrating inclusion, which proactively can create a feeling of psychological safety and this, mitigate biases. Alexa Summer, CLO of Rho, suggests ways this could be accomplished, such as:

    • Tailoring management style — Summer customizes her engagement approach with each person she works with, including her peers, direct reports, members of the company’s law department. Specifically, Summer says she seeks to understand what the motivations, goals, and preferences for communication are by asking questions to create a give-and-take, flexible atmosphere that offers a joint approach to problem solving.
    • Repeating expectations of work performance — To increase and maintain trust and transparency, Summer says she often reinforces expectations of performance in hybrid work situations through one-on-one meetings with her direct reports. This ensures that she and her employees maintain a consistent understanding of work requirements and performance goals, especially in a dynamic remote working world where everything evolves quickly.

The management behaviors that advance a culture of trust, respect, and inclusion while mitigating bias in remote and hybrid work are pretty much the same as those that comprise a great leader. Most of the time, this just requires adapting these behaviors to a different paradigm — in this case, one of a remote-first mindset.

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