Take Five with Piyush Patel: An entrepreneur’s advice on gender inequality

Piyush Patel, founder of Digital-Tutors and an expert in corporate culture, has a simple solution to gender discrimination in the workplace: Have each job interview conducted by a man and a woman. “Doing this helps to eliminate gender bias in the recruiting process, and can also help employers avoid hiring toxic employees,” he says.

Actually, his formula for eliminating discrepancies in pay, hiring, and overall workplace environment is more involved than that, and he explores them in a new book titled Lead Your Tribe, Love Your Work. His basic message is that as an employer, you create your own playbook and you’re responsible for your own game. “Make sure everyone plays your way, or they don’t play at all.”

Patel recently spoke to IB about one of the hottest topics in business — gender equality in the workplace.

IB: Given that signs of gender equity aren’t always obvious, what are some subtle signs that reveal a potential employee is harboring gender biases?

Patel: A great example I can share with you is an interview for a new hire that we conducted. When I do interviews, I always have a person of the opposite sex in the same room as a co-interviewer, so we always have a male and a female. My female co-interviewer asked a male job candidate questions and he would look at me and answer the question. I thought that was kind of strange because when I asked a question, he answered me while looking at me. When she asked him a question, he wouldn’t look at her. I thought it was really strange that he just assumed that I was the one making the hiring decision when in reality she was the one making the hiring decision. So that immediately showed us that this person has already got a bias about our organization and how he views the world.

We have employees working together as a team. I always keep my eyes open to who does the thinking and who does the work. I’m on a number of nonprofit boards and I always notice that the men will say, ‘Okay, I’ve got ideas’ and they look to one of the females and say, ‘Now, you go do the research,’ and I’m one of the first to stop and say, ‘Whoa, if you want to know the answer, then you do the research.’ These are little subtle things that, even as team leaders, you want everyone to have ownership in that process, and I don’t know if it’s harboring gender bias or if it’s just how they view the world, but in leadership we have to break that cycle.

“I think you’ve really got to use your core values to serve as your identifier of how you’re going to behave or not behave.” — Piyush Patel

IB: What are some of the better tips for identifying toxic behavior in the workplace?

Patel: For toxic behavior, I’m a big believer in core values. They have got to be your driver for making decisions. If your core value is teamwork, yet you praise people who are individualistic and not into teamwork, or you say our core value is work-life balance, but you reward people and praise people for staying late and working weekends, I think you’ve really got to use your core values to serve as your identifier of how you’re going to behave or not behave.

A great example of that is one of our core values is respect, and that’s hard to define. We define it as: we will not tolerate the disrespect of people or property. Through the years, I dealt with somebody who we would call the Bathroom Bandit. This person would go to the bathroom and not replace the toilet paper roll. This is clearly against our core values, so I gathered all the folks up and I said, ‘Folks, this is how it’s going to work. If I go to the bathroom after you, and you have not replaced the toilet paper, that’s your last day’ because if you’re willing to do that for your fellow co-worker in their most vulnerable position, what else are you willing to do? What else is going on here that we don’t even know about?

So it’s about looking at your core values and identifying whether you’re allowing people to behave outside of those core values because they may make you a little extra money or they are your star player? That’s really toxic to an environment — it doesn’t allow vulnerability to happen because there is no trust. I love a particular book and I give it to every one of my employees. It’s called Everything I Learned, I Learned in Kindergarten. It’s about, again, how to play with each other, how to be part of a team, and how to be a good person within an organization.

IB: Are there any other subtle signs of toxic behavior?

Patel: Outside of simple common sense, you’ve got things like people who undermine others and people who take credit for work that they have not done. A lot of leadership teams allow these problems. Leadership has to know what’s going on with their folks. Is there trust? Even if a leader is the supervisor of a team responsible for getting things done, you can turn around and say, ‘These folks actually do the work, and I’m really proud of what they’ve done.’ Those things start to harbor a behavior of, ‘Well, it’s doesn’t matter what I do. I’m never going to get credit for it. I can be toxic and somebody will have to deal with it.’

IB: In addition to the preventive step mentioned above — having a man and a woman involved in the job interview — what are other best practices for fixing this kind of behavior once it manifests itself after the hire, or even help to change a person for the better?

Patel: In the book, we call this the GROW model, and GROW stands for goal, reality, options, and the ‘w’ is a catch-all for what, will, and when you do it. What this means is that I teach everybody to have an uncomfortable conversation, so we start off just like that — we need to have an uncomfortable conversation. Now you’re prepared, I’m prepared, and it’s clear that we’re not having a meeting to talk about a pay raise, right? We’re talking about something that is very uncomfortable. So I would start out with the first two letters pertaining to the goal and the reality. I would say the goal of our organization is to make sure that we get things done and that we treat people with respect, and the reality is that you’re not doing that, and here’s the clear example. Now your behavior, not your character, is central to the outcome. We always talk about the outcome. The reality is that these projects are not getting done because you’re not respecting the people you work with. I’m giving you some options and now it’s my job to be quiet. I’m going to give you some options and then I’m going to ask you what will you do and when will you do it? I put the onus and the responsibility on you to change your behavior to get the outcome the organization needs.

IB: How much rope, or time, do you give a person to engage in professional self-improvement?

Patel: In most cases, I’m a three strikes guy, so three GROW models and you clearly not understanding how we work here. In other cases, we address it right away. I’ve had a situation where we took our entire company on a retreat, all 42 people, and one of my guys who was living in Chicago — and we’re at a Bulls game —starts yelling the ‘N’ word. That guy did not last three GROW models. The minute we got home, he was let go. If that’s how you treat people in your personal life, that’s probably how you treat them at work. We can’t have you be part of our organization.



IB: What was the biggest test of your company’s core values regarding inappropriate behavior, since sometimes companies are reluctant to deal with a toxic individual because he’s also a top performer?

Patel: You’re probably able to get lots of examples around employees, but let me tell you how far I’d take it. I fired one of my biggest customers because they would call and totally berate a young lady who answers the phones. This man would call, chew her out one side and down the other, and we could never figure out why. I think it’s because she would answer the phone. One day I saw her and asked, ‘Why are you crying?’ and she said, ‘It’s Thursday and this guy calls every Thursday.’ She just thought it was part of the job [to absorb his flack]. I told her that’s not part of the job. The next time he calls, you have him talk to me.

Now this customer is a Fortune 100 company, a big, big organization. I pretty much fired them over the phone. I said, ‘Look, we’re going to return all of your money. We’re don’t need a penny of your money. We’re not going to pro-rate it, and we’re done,’ and he said, ‘You know, I am part of X, Y, Z.’ I replied, ‘That’s wonderful. There are thousands of you and only one example of my organization.’ It wasn’t long before we had 11 of their lawyers on the phone with us. They understood they were in the wrong and they wanted to make things right. We said, ‘Okay, you’re going to put your money where your mouth is. You’re going to pay for three years in advance with no discounts, and they said, ‘No problem, turn us back on.’

Sometimes, you have to stand up for what your company believes in. It’s easy to deal with employees because you’ve got to be quick and you’ve got to be consistent. It also comes from your customers, as well. It reaches down to your employees when they understand that you’re willing to stand up for them and their well being over a dollar.

IB: Of course, you have to document every step to protect the company when you encounter those situations with customers or employees.

Patel: You do. The GROW model is a great way to document it because it’s really clear. It’s about here’s our goal, here is our reality, what are you going to do, and when are you going to do it by? So if they don’t have it done by the time they said they would, it’s really clear they are not fulfilling their end of the agreement.

IB: There is more interest in our business community about creating a culture of diversity, inclusion, and equity, but there is a come-to-Jesus moment where every business leader has to ask some tough internal questions about any implicit bias in the organization. What are the essential questions that all corporate leaders must ask themselves when they are the very beginning stages of creating an inclusive culture?

Patel: First of all, do people understand what our policies are? What is our sexual harassment policy? I’ll be honest with you because I walk into organizations that we consult for and this is currently a hot topic. I ask, where are policy documents? Do people really understand?

I spend hours with each new hire going line by line over how our organization works. This is our policy. This is whom you talk to. If they don’t listen, this is the next person. If they won’t talk to you, come talk to me. Do you understand? There is a problem if you don’t understand. Tell me what I just said to reiterate this is how we’re going to all play. A couple of essential questions in an organization that’s already up and running pertain to the support of leadership. Have a little one-on-one. Does your leadership listen to you? Do they know you and do they listen to you? Can people tell the truth even when they don’t want to hear the truth?

A lot of that boils down to vulnerability, so I’m a firm believer that if you want to have real trust in an organization, you’ve got to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable creates intimacy and intimacy creates trust. What I mean by vulnerability is if I come to you and say, ‘Hey, I’ll be honest with you because what you’re doing is derailing.’ If you don’t take that information and use it as a weapon against me, that creates trust.”

IB: Is there any other advice you’d give companies?

Patel: Make it clear there will be no retaliation for things reported. However, a false report is almost more damaging than a real report. Not to sugarcoat all the stuff that’s going on, but we have to work together and I make it clear that it should never get to that point. We should have an environment where you should know if you are harassed. Here are the steps that we take. For me, it is immediately go to your supervisor. If it’s your supervisor that you have the issue with, go to their supervisor. Then it goes all the way up to HR and then to us. If it can’t be resolved, then we go with both, but we try to move very quickly. That’s the big thing for your readers to understand — you’ve got to move quickly.

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