Hybrid work

How can HR address proximity bias in an increasingly hybrid workplace?

Proximity bias can happen at any organization, but these tools can help remote employees break through the ‘Zoom ceiling.’
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4 min read

The widespread adoption of remote work seems to have drawn an audible gasp from experts who have suggested remote employees’ careers will languish beneath the “Zoom ceiling” while their in-person colleagues rack up promotions, raises, and corner-office real estate.

Their theories aren’t unfounded: A study published last year by University of Pittsburgh business professor David Lebel, who surveyed 1,729 of the school’s remote employees three times in 2020, found that while remote work increased employees’ work-life balance, it could be an obstacle to career advancement, writing: “Interpersonal connections between managers and employees have a positive effect on promotion and career advancement—research shows that people not connected to those at work don’t get promoted as often.”

Proximity bias—the notion that managers are more likely to promote and favor in-person employees over their remote colleagues—can materialize at any hybrid organization, Rod Lacey, chief people officer at SaaS provider SimPro, told HR Brew. If two employees, one remote and one in-person, are vying for the same promotion and have historically performed at the same level, Lacey said, the in-person candidate will likely have an edge. “A leader might lean towards the more familiar,” he said. “I think that would be natural.”

But employers can clamp down on the threat of proximity bias by equipping remote employees with the resources they need to advance, both Lacey and Kristin Langdon, SVP of people at enterprise-SEO platform Botify, explained. Both HR leaders oversee hybrid workforces and suggested striking a balance between the quantitative and the qualitative: By setting clear performance goals and appointing managers with a knack for cultivating relationships, the Zoom ceiling may crumble, giving way to idyllic skies with “Promotion coming soon” written in the clouds.

Let the data talk. Promotions at SimPro hinge on “quantitative objectives and clarity around what’s expected of every role,” Lacey said. Managers and employees need to be on the same page when it comes to goals and how to achieve them so an employee’s output can speak for itself. “We try to remove as much of the qualitative assessment out of our merit and promotion process as possible,” he explained. The company tries to embody an “objective mindset as we evaluate who deserves the larger increases in pay and who deserves the next promotion opportunity.”

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This sort of data-focused approach can help tackle the awarding of undue promotions based on personal relationships—a symptom of proximity bias that, if left unaddressed, can portend long-term consequences, especially in a hot job market. “It’s a two-edged sword, where you’ve moved someone into a role that is not the best person…and then you’re going to lose your top performer that you should have promoted,” Lacey said.

Botify seeks to embody Management by Objectives, a management theory that prioritizes using data to measure performance. “They’re important,” Langdon said, so that employees who are “distributed across the world” understand their priorities and can be evaluated by the same criteria, regardless of how often they see their colleagues face-to-face.

Long paths. At Botify, HR addresses proximity bias by considering the long arc of an employee’s career and keeping tabs on their progress with their manager. There are two career paths at Botify—managerial and individual contributor—and those who pursue the former need to have the leadership skills required to foster relationships with in-person and remote employees.

Because being a manager “isn’t everyone’s cup of tea,” Langdon noted, Botify puts managerial candidates through trial runs during which they’re mentored by VP-level colleagues. “We do a lot of peer review surveys to make sure that the [employee] is getting the value that they need from that manager, and that that manager is actually enjoying the management and wants to continue down that track.”

This will ensure employees are “reaching for the thing that actually makes them successful and, in turn, mak[ing] the business more successful,” she said. So that eschewing a managerial track doesn’t mean foregoing more money, “if someone wants to go on the individual contributor track, their title aligns with a manager title and their compensation aligns as well.”

It may take a bridge that’s equal parts data and human to help remote employees cross the visibility gap, but HR can help them get there.—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.