Making the decisions employees are faced with more simple, clear or automatic dramatically reduces barriers that contribute to inequality in the workplace, according to recent research by Kellen Mrkva, Eric J. Johnson, Crystal Reeck and Nathaniel Posner.


The researchers call these clarification efforts “nudges,” and they say including them is effective and affordable, making them a win-win for leaders and employees:


Remove sludge. Like the complex vaccine sign-up many Americans recently experienced, employees often face overly complex decisions with too many options, paperwork burdens or hard-to-understand terms. These burdens, sometimes called sludge, almost always harm vulnerable and low socio-economic-status (SES) people the most. In many cases, organizations can reduce or remove these obstacles or at least provide tools to help their employees make good decisions.


Make it automatic. Defaults can be used by organizations and policymakers to make beneficial behaviors easier and more automatic. An example of this is employers who automatically sent free masks to employees during the beginning of the pandemic or Congress considering making earned income tax credits automatic.


Think about vulnerable employees when choosing the default option. If one option is better for rich and experienced people, while another is better for low-SES individuals, the former option should not be set as the default. One good policy in cases like these would be to use smart defaults, which pre-select different options for different people to try to benefit all people. When that is not possible, the needs of vulnerable employees should be prioritized because they are typically more likely to rely on the default options, while those of higher socioeconomic status tend to adjust the default status to something that better fits their needs.


Remove options that are worse for all employees. Another effective tool to reduce inequities and improve decisions is to eliminate options that are inferior to other options in every way; these are called dominated options, which are common in health care plans and 401k options offered to employees. Like other nudges, removing dominated options benefited people with low-SES most.