How to avoid systematic bias in startup perks

Here at Pez.AI, we recently introduced a feature bounty program, where we pay a cash bonus for implementing a nice to have feature that isn’t prioritized. The idea is that those who are motivated and ambitious would do this in their free time outside of work. While still new, it only took a few days for the first bounty to be paid up!

This program is great for getting lower priority or non-mission critical problems solved. It also helps identify motivated employees and potential rising stars. Or does it? The problem with this program is that not everyone can take advantage of it. If we rely on the feature bounty to identify talent, we are introducing selection bias into our process. How can this be when the program is equal opportunity, for everyone in the company? The key issue is access, not opportunity.

Let’s see how this works with some examples. Suppose I offer telecommuting to my employees. Some employees work exclusively off-site, while others work on-site. Let’s pretend that the list of features in the feature bounty program are only visible on a whiteboard in the office. After some time I score my employees based on the number of features they implemented. I assume the top three employees are the most committed amd give them more opportunities for growth. What’s wrong with this picture? The program is open to all, but only on-site workers have access to the program.

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In our Manila office we have a different issue. Some employees come from well-to-do families, while others are from more modest backgrounds. The upper class is like an aristocracy and these families typically have maids to do laundry and clean their house. The less fortunate have to do their own housekeeping and chores, which can take the whole day. What’s this got to do with feature bounties? Since this program is extracurricular, we make the assumption that employees have free time outside of work to work on these features. This is certainly true of employees coming from the upper classes. But what about employees coming from poorer families? While opportunity is open to all, the feature bounty program favors wealthier employees, and therefore has unequal access.

It should be easy to see how equal access becomes an issue for many groups of people, such as the disabled, the poor, single parents, women in general (in male-dominated work environments). Even if a program starts with good intentions, a poorly executed program can do more harm than good by reinforcing systematic biases.

What can be done to improve access to such programs? As with most solutions, the first step is recognizing systematic bias and unequal access. The second step is either change the process or introduce complementary programs to address the access issue. In the telecommuting example, by making the feature bounty available online, this would ensure off-site workers have the same access to the program as on-site workers. In our case, we introduced a new company perk that reimburses weekly housekeeping for employees earning less than a specified amount. This perk increases access to the feature bounty program by removing housekeeping as a time barrier.

In the United States, examples of improving access include providing or reimbursing day care, shuttles for employees who commute longer distances, etc. Our program could easily be modified to reimburse babysitting so a single parent could attend an after work or weekend networking event. We actually allow the reimbursement to be used for travel to/from events related to networking and personal growth. The less well-heeled tend to live farther away from the city center. Even if they want to go to an event, having to take a 2 hour commute late night with less transportation options can discourage them from attending an event. Reimbursing a taxi ride can therefore enable poorer employees to spend time on personal development.

It’s not easy to implement programs that are completely free of bias. And sometimes you run the risk of alienating those more privileged. In our case we want to ensure the benefit is fair and equitable. So we offer it to anyone who qualifies regardless of their socioeconomic background. That said, we do ask people to only take it if they need it. This serves two purposes. First, it helps to de-stigmatize being poor since we talk about the perk openly in our employee handbook. Second, it encourages employees to be honest about their privilege and recognize that others aren’t so fortunate. This is one step towards compassion.

Policies like these require a commitment from senior management to get right. As an entrepreneur, it’s all too easy to ignore such issues and just focus on maximizing revenue and profit. But a relentless pursuit of profit at all costs is an ugly culture bereft of compassion and respect. By improving access to opportunity, we create a more just and equitable company. We also increase diversity and foster loyalty, which helps maintain a strong and healthy business.

Pez.AI is a socially responsible AI company. We make enterprise chatbots to streamline business processes and eliminate unnecessary inefficiency.

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