Why we need a fresh approach to tackling unconscious bias in the workplace

Following his recent research into the topic, Daniel Derbyshire outlines what can be done to stamp out implicit biases and improve inclusion

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The term ‘unconscious’ or ‘implicit’ bias will be familiar to most HR professionals, and many public organisations and large businesses will have considered programmes to deal with bias among their workforce. 

I have conducted unique research into unconscious bias in business and was surprised by the findings. The significant efforts of large companies in the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) space, especially relating to disability, are ineffective at reducing unconscious bias. We find it surprising that neither working for a large company nor being involved in HR have a significant effect on implicit attitudes towards disabled people and/or older people. So a new approach is needed.

Large companies spend significant amounts of money on EDI and unconscious bias training – up to $8bn each year in the US (McKinsey, 2017). Similarly, there has been a substantial increase in the number of diversity and inclusion-based job roles over recent years, with LinkedIn suggesting a global rise of 71 per cent from 2015 to 2020. People involved in recruitment and retention decisions – especially HR professionals – are also often specifically trained in EDI issues given their remit of ensuring compliance with relevant legislation such as the Equality Act 2010. 

My work is part of The Inclusivity Project, which brings together research from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter in collaboration with partners Age UK Cornwall and The Isles of Scilly, disAbility Cornwall and Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership with the support of the European Regional Development Fund

It was carried out in Cornwall, which was selected because it is similar to the national average and has a population shift that will be emulated across Britain’s cities in the next decade. Cornwall’s levels of bias are consistent with elsewhere in the UK.

Its purpose has been to generate a better understanding of some of the challenges and opportunities facing employers in creating inclusive places to work, particularly for people who are over 50, disabled or have a long-term health condition.

Unlike previous research into inclusive work, it is the first to look at a potential effect of firm size on implicit bias. Large firms and SMEs are failing at inclusivity. We found that there are no differences between those who work for large employers compared to small companies, despite the amount of money large organisations spend on training. The work is in the field of behavioural and experimental economics, using insights from a wide range of fields, such as psychology, neuroscience and cognitive science, to improve our understanding of human behaviour and, ultimately, society. 

In addition to surveying more than 100 business professionals, we used the Implicit Association Test, a tool established in 1998 at Harvard University for measuring implicit attitudes and beliefs to reveal an individual’s hidden or subconscious biases. The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission says the test is effective at raising awareness of unconscious bias.

There is significant implicit bias against disabled people among the business community, causing an instant barrier. Stigma and stereotyping are cited as a key barrier to employment for disabled people, with persistent myths about lower productivity, high physical adaptation costs and high absenteeism. 

The UK unemployment rate for disabled people (7.5 per cent), for example, is nearly twice the rate for non-disabled people (4 per cent). Such inequalities place a substantial burden on the welfare system. Our findings suggest that disabled people are underrepresented in the HR profession and in making hiring decisions. Addressing this gap will create more inclusive workplaces and may in turn help to address the disability employment gap.

Unemployment of over-50s has also increased post-furlough. The Centre for Ageing Better cites the latest labour market figures showing that 355,000 over-50s are currently unemployed, with 31,000 having been made redundant between May and July 2021 alone. A recent report by the OECD found that age-diverse workforces could raise GDP per capita by almost 19 per cent in the next three decades.

The government published a review of bias training in 2021 that reconfirmed previous findings by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. There is no evidence that bias training is effective because it is varied and unregulated, and people often do it to ‘tick a box’ without measuring outcomes. 

I believe it is time to lobby for improved training standards and measurement of unconscious bias training. New, more effective and evidence-based strategies for tackling unconscious bias are needed, including regulation. We need to develop standards of bias training and measurements rather than a tick-box approach, and we must not abandon it.

Lobby bodies must develop accreditation and encourage routine inclusion of disability and age data in equality and diversity reporting so that we can monitor progress properly and build an evidence base about what works – and what doesn’t.

Dr Daniel Derbyshire is a behavioural economics research fellow at the University of Exeter