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Battling bias - cleansing corporate decision-making in an age of diversity

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett September 25, 2018
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all subject to unconscious bias, which can take a negative toll on our decision-making abilities.

All human beings are subject to unconscious bias, whether they like it or not. In fact, unconscious bias is a basic survival mechanism that enables us to feel safe when we are surrounded by people who are similar to us.

But this bias also means that we tend to jump to conclusions and stereotype others - an approach that inevitably shapes our decision-making abilities, usually without us being aware of it.

The problem when such biases are present among people who have power in a workplace context though is that they generally hire, support and promote others in their own image. But this situation can end up creating a monoculture that is decidedly lacking in diversity.

Such a scenario is far from good news in many different ways, but not least in terms of company profitability, according to McKinsey’s latest diversity and inclusion (D&I) report entitled ‘Delivering through diversity’. It indicates, for example, that the top 25% of companies surveyed with a good gender mix at the executive level were 21% more likely to demonstrate above average profitability. The figure rose to 33% if ethnicity and race became the key factors under consideration.

But unconscious bias also has a huge impact at the personal level too. Therese Stowell, product manager and D&I lead at software and services company Pivotal, explains:

Studies have proven that diverse companies are more creative, have better employee retention rates and staff that are generally happier as they feel recognised and rewarded for work fairly done. The problem is that unconscious bias can make itself felt at every level, from screening and recruiting candidates to feedback and promotion processes once they’re there. It also makes itself known in people’s day-to-day interactions.

But the other side of the coin, which tends to receive less attention, is the unconscious bias that software engineers end up coding into their applications. As Stowell says:

There are lots of stories about facial recognition systems not working with people of colour and older people with touch sensitivity issues not being able to use tablets, but the issue is that people who build software bake in their own biases. It’s a very insidious problem and one that will become an increasing part of our existence as we continue to become more and more enmeshed in technology.

Insidious problem

But for the very reason that this problem is insidious, Natalie Bonifede, Pivotal’s senior manager for people operations, believes that unconscious bias training should not take place as a one-off or standalone initiative. Instead it should be integrated as a theme across an organisation’s entire programmes ranging from best practice for hiring managers to leadership coaching. Bonifede explains:

Some people think unconscious bias training is a silver bullet, but it’s not. The concept is not as easy as understanding you’re biased and ‘stopping’ yourself from doing it…Unconscious bias training must be part of a comprehensive programme to be effective. It’s difficult to execute ongoing training…so the content needs to be embedded into daily activities. Leadership also plays a huge role in modelling good behaviour and keeping this top of mind. When they speak, people listen.

As a result, Pivotal is taking an approach to the subject that is meant to cover “both depth and breadth”. It has started by rolling out a film about unconscious bias to its employees around the world in a bid to raise awareness. A further aim is to provoke discussion about how the issue manifests within the company and what can be done to mitigate its impact.

But the supplier is also attempting to embed the concept into its culture by including D&I considerations in its performance evaluations as well as incorporating them into all of its learning and development content. This means that unconscious bias issues are included in its psychological safety training, its ‘Thinking about Inclusion’ workshops and its leadership coaching activities.

According to Bonifede, a third strand of its programme also involves:

Piloting client-facing content that explores the concept of unconscious bias, values and how shared norms and inclusivity can create better products and more effective outcomes between employees and clients, specifically on the labs side of the company. Eventually, this content will be part of all Client Kick-offs going forward.

Another company that is taking unconscious bias training seriously, meanwhile, is CA Technologies. It started down this route about three years ago on realising the important role it could to play in the software vendor’s D&I activities. Sue Henley, head of D&I for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), explains:

Three years ago, unconscious bias wasn’t really being talked about, but it just clicked that it could form the basis of our inclusion initiatives. You can’t do inclusion without tackling unconscious bias, so we saw it as key to driving a culture shift.

Removing the blind spots

Following a number of training sessions on the subject, it became obvious that unconscious bias touched everything from recruitment to employee engagement and the company and employer brand. As such, the UK’s Ethnicity ‘employee network’ group, which operated under the banner of the firm’s Thrive inclusion programme,  immediately understood the importance of the issue and was keen to get on board.

Therefore, with the help of the UK’s Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion, which developed the voluntary scheme, a one-hour taster session in the shape of a ‘Lunch and Learn’ was held for around 15 UK staff. The initiative was then rolled out across the rest of EMEA supported by a ‘Train the Trainer’ programme, which involved 16 employees from across the region.

Three years later, some 800 out of a total of 1,800 or so employees, which includes 100% of all managers, have taken the unconscious bias training. The concepts are woven into all of the firm’s EMEA-based management training activities, and online tools and information are also provided as useful reference materials. The idea, says Henley, is that:

We all have blind spots, so helping people to be more aware and to understand them means they shouldn’t impact on decision-making in the business so much. But you have to normalise the situation and make it OK for people to talk about it. A couple of years ago, managers would claim they didn’t have any unconscious biases and we’d say ‘ how do you know?’ But now, people understand that we all have them and that’s OK as it wouldn’t be normal if we didn’t. So it’s been a big shift. People feel able to call each other out and not be worried about it as it’s normal rather than confrontational. So it’s also about holding each other more accountable.

Henley is now also talking to her North American counterparts about rolling the initiative out there too. She concludes:

Unconscious bias is only one part of a bigger cultural change initiative, but if you can manage to get as few as a third of people to go through a shared experience, which means they start thinking similarly, you can really start to turn the tide and create a cultural shift.

My take

Unconscious bias training has a powerful role to play in changing what can seem like entrenched behaviour in the workplace and elsewhere. While it will never offer the full solution, it does help people to recognise their hidden preconceptions and prejudices and so can act as a useful foundation for appropriate action to help make the working culture more inclusive.

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