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The hidden bias in company contracts—and how to root it out

From the hierarchy of who needs to sign them, to the non-inclusive language, discrimination in contracts further marginalizes women and underrepresented minorities.

The hidden bias in company contracts—and how to root it out
[Source illustration: Rawpixel]

When it comes to digital contracts, companies need to spend less time thinking about “exclusivity” and more time thinking about “inclusivity.”

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The COVID-19 era has been a catalyst for digital innovation. During a moment of heightened uncertainty, organizations have been increasing their investment in technology like video conferencing and tools to manage digital documents to ensure business continuity and future-proof their operations. This includes contracts, like client or vendor agreements and employment or policy forms, which are at the heart of organizational processes and collaboration. 

But while the embrace of digital contracts is forward-thinking, there’s still a lot about the contracting process that feels stuck in the past. From the hidden hierarchy of who needs to sign contracts to the non-inclusive language within them, discrimination in digital contracts threatens to further marginalize women and underrepresented minorities in our increasingly digital workplace.

This is an important moment to consider these issues. While we’ve spent a lot of time studying and training employees to identify in-person workplace microaggressions, our understanding of digital microaggressions is still nascent. Given that the hybrid work era will be just as defined by virtual workflows as by in-person interactions, organizations need to step up to ensure that inclusivity is in every single aspect of the company culture, including critical documents like digital contracts. 

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The state of contract non-inclusivity

Adobe surveyed 1,400 enterprise workers across the U.S., U.K., and Australia to understand employee sentiments around how their employers are handling inclusivity in and around their contract processes. Our topline finding: Companies still have a way to go before they can say their contract operations are completely inclusive. 

Here are a few takeaways: 

  • Contract language is still gender-binary and non-inclusive. According to 38% of employees, contracts still use gender-binary terms, and 16% say they’ve seen outdated and incorrect language listed to describe themselves. 
  • Underrepresented minorities were more likely to spot these gaps. In the U.S., 31% of underrepresented minority workers reported noticing limited self-description options, compared to 23% of non-underrepresented minorities. 
  • Women are spending a lot more time chasing down signatures. Women say it takes them 97 minutes to secure signatures for contracts, significantly higher than the 70 minutes that male employees say it takes them.
  • Many companies aren’t asking employees to sign diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies. While two-thirds of employees have signed a code of conduct agreement, only half say they have signed a non-discrimination or DEI policies
  • There’s a gender gap in who needs to sign contracts. Respondents said that male employees are more likely than women to be necessary signatories for documents–88% vs. 82%–or need to give final document signoff (75% vs. 61%).

From this data, it’s clear that there’s a gap between what employers do and what their employees want to see when it comes to inclusivity practices for digital contracts.

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Rewriting the contract for digital contracts

Given the clear value that digital contracts will have in our digital-first workplaces, companies have an opportunity to ensure that their contracts are just as inclusive as every other part of their workplace culture. 

There are a few obvious easy wins here. For one, start with doing a thorough audit of your contract language to ensure that you’re avoiding gender binary phrases (i.e., “he” or “her”) in favor of gender-neutral ones (“they”). For example, words such as “chairman” in contracts should be replaced with “chairperson.”

Another area of opportunity is job offer contracts, which ask employees to volunteer demographic information such as their gender and racial identity. Our research reported that 25% of enterprise workers say that the options they see on contracts isn’t extensive enough, limiting their ability to accurately describe themselves. Companies should ensure that their options are as extensive as possible. A good rule of thumb is to leave an option where individuals can write in their preferred descriptors. 

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Aside from workplace language, establish clear policies around non-discrimination and DEI policies. Workers need clear expectations for workplace behavior, helping establish guidelines for how they treat others and how they can expect to be treated. Studies show that organizations with DEI policies and initiatives experience better financial performance, growth, and talent retention. They simply need to take advantage of available resources to help establish a policy and program that caters toward all employees. 

As more workplaces embrace the notion that they should encourage employees to bring their full selves to work, contract inclusivity is a small, but critical way to illustrate that commitment. 


Lisa Croft is director of digital media at Adobe.

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