Beyond bias

Most organisations understand how bias works – yet most workplace cultures are still beset by inequity. Perhaps it’s time to look a little deeper

It’s the little things that make you suspicious. You might be the person the CEO forgets to greet in the morning. Or perhaps nobody ever asks what you did at the weekend. You might write such everyday workplace occurrences off as coincidences at first, but over time they can have a profound effect.

Chartered psychologist Dr Pete Jones takes such “micro-inequities” very seriously indeed. He believes they are evidence of our unconscious biases surfacing at work. And the bad news is that the next inequity could mean you miss out on a career-changing project.

It would be an ambitious (and unrealistic) employer that thought it could eradicate unconscious bias – these snap judgements we make in a matter of seconds – as our brains have been programmed to react in certain ways to different ‘tribes’ for millennia. But many are making efforts, at least, to recognise and mitigate it through unconscious bias testing and training that encourages employees to take a moment before allowing biases to influence their decisions.

The problem is that simply recognising the problem is far from enough to solve it, and there is evidence that many workplace cultures remain a long way from inclusive. In April, a report by consultancy ComRes found that only a quarter of workers felt their organisations promoted an understanding of religious beliefs, and 35 per cent said they never discussed their personal beliefs at work. In the week the gender pay gap reporting regulations came into force, it was revealed that less than half of employees perceived women as receiving equal pay to men, despite the fact that 53 per cent of employers were ‘very confident’ this was the case.

Dan Robertson, diversity and inclusion director at enei, the employers network for equality & inclusion, argues that measuring ‘progress’ in diversity by looking at the numbers may be a misnomer. “It doesn’t matter how diverse you are if you don’t have an environment that’s inclusive,” he says.

How organisations position diversity training can also influence its impact, he says: “It can work better not to position unconscious bias training as an HR initiative, but to instead push it as a global business initiative. We know the business environment is facing a lot of disruption. Illustrate how dealing with our biases can help us to mitigate risk in this environment, because, if we continue to be all the same, we run the risk of groupthink. This is a totally different proposition to your traditional D&I approach.” He adds that making the training mandatory can also reduce its success – people who go in with a willing mindset tend to be more likely to take it on board.

As the graphs on the page demonstrate, some of the sectors that have faced the most profound challenges on bias have made the most progress on the topic simply because they have been forced to think beyond box-ticking. But one of the biggest obstacles can be getting people to accept they have biases in the first place, according to business psychologist and diversity author Binna Kandola of Pearn Kandola. “There’ll be a significant proportion of people who will still leave the room after unconscious bias training and think: ‘This does not relate to me,’ or worse: ‘I’m biased but I don’t care.’ You should never assume that someone goes on a two-hour course and becomes cleansed,” he says.