Long reads

Beyond bias

27 Apr 2017 By Jo Faragher

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.

Organisations can mitigate this by ensuring there are constant ‘nudges’ that follow their training. “Build it into your protocols to ask questions,” adds Kandola. “Challenge people to go back to the evidence, for example, when making decisions about pay. Does this decision match up with someone’s performance?”

At consulting company EY, embedding unconscious bias training into something much broader has helped to seed a more inclusive culture. “We had run a web-based unconscious bias training programme before but, while it was good for raising awareness of bias and helping people to spot it in others, it was not great at eliminating it,” says Sally Bucknell, EY’s director of diversity and inclusiveness. The company still uses the training but it’s a small part of a wider programme called Inclusive Leadership, which has been attended by around 900 partners and 2,500 managers since 2013.

“We look at ‘interrupters’ – what are the decisions you make where these dynamics come into play and what’s your strategy to interrupt them? We also look at the language team leaders can use in their everyday dealings. Partners have the option to do coaching afterwards, or work in action learning groups,” she says. In addition, there is a five-week ‘summer of inclusion’ each year featuring talks and events designed to push employees to reflect on the inclusiveness of their decisions. Unconscious bias training also features in graduate and new-joiner inductions, and is revisited when someone is promoted.

It’s these ‘impact points’ where being aware of any unconscious bias can make all the difference, according to Jones. If we focus disproportionately on bias at the recruitment stage – as many organisations naturally do – we miss its more pernicious effect on day-to-day working decisions.

“Work allocation is a big one,” he says. “Who’s chosen to be on the team? Not allocating a high-profile work project has the potential to change someone’s career, but we tend to fall back on the usual suspects. Encourage people to take a 10-second gap to consider whether to use their ‘go to’ guy or take a risk with someone else.”

This isn’t just about biases against those with legally recognised ‘protected characteristics’ such as race or disability, either – there may be times we feel we just don’t get on with someone or don’t like the way they talk, or we choose the same people because we have an ‘affinity bias’ towards someone who is like us.

When law firm Hogan Lovells decided to examine why its gender diversity figures weren’t as healthy as it would like, it took a data-driven approach. The company had set itself targets to reach 25 per cent female representation at partner level by this year, and 30 per cent by 2022, but felt it needed to “do something more” to make that progress, according to Alison Unsted, head of global diversity, inclusion and wellbeing strategy.

“We did some analysis in our London office, looking at the whole employee lifecycle through a diversity lens,” she says. “We were attracting women but there were differences in how women were progressing through the ranks. In their early careers, they were doing as well if not better than their male counterparts, but at the senior end it was different. The research had shown this was not about rates of attrition, but rates of promotion. People had made assumptions, such as it being caused by a lack of flexibility, but there were other factors at play too.”

Hogan Lovells rolled out unconscious bias training globally in 2013 for all partners and senior business service managers. “We wanted to understand how bias may be affecting women, in particular the impact of affinity bias,” says Unsted. “The sessions included the science behind bias and the impact this has on how we make decisions and give feedback. We hoped that through the training, our leaders would be more aware of their biases when making decisions and take steps to overcome this; for example, when allocating a team to a certain project, making sure they are considering the wider team, not just the people in their affinity group.”

One of the things that made a difference was using real case studies to illustrate how bias might come in – for example, making an assumption that a woman returning from maternity leave would no longer want to travel on business, without having asked her first. The firm has also looked at where bias may creep into organisational processes and made changes to eliminate its impact through using competency-based recruitment, ensuring there are diverse hiring panels and allocating work centrally where possible.

Robertson suggests a number of actions organisations can take to ensure that unconscious bias training – or indeed any diversity initiative – becomes more than a tick-box exercise and actually encourages a shift in culture. There are individual level actions such as: listening to who is dominating the discussion on a conference call and encouraging others to speak up; having coffee or lunch with someone new; avoiding language that’s loaded with assumptions (such as ‘gravitas’ or ‘presence’); or allocating a challenging piece of work to someone whose potential you had not previously recognised. On an organisational level, among other things, consider challenging recruiters to come up with more diverse shortlists, showcasing role models who challenge traditional viewpoints, looking for patterns in performance management scores and challenging bias, and using checklists to prompt employees to step back before they make a decision.

Unsted believes taking a systemic approach has benefitted Hogan Lovells: “Training is not the solution, it’s just the start. Changing the system results in better and more efficient ways of working.”

As the nature of work changes, challenging bias will become more important than ever. “Moving into the gig economy, if we trust our unconscious decisions we could end up working in a more siloed way than ever before,” says Jones. Working on a project basis with an increasingly freelance workforce arguably increases the temptation to stay within our comfort zone and hire those we trust, rather than taking a chance on someone different. Bucknell says EY has already started examining this. “We’re now looking at how the workforce is changing and issues such as automation: in the future, how do we ensure we pick workers from a diverse pool of talent and that people are inclusively selected? We need to encourage managers to choose people based on strengths and skills rather than experience and where they sit in a hierarchy.”

There is a commercial imperative to get this right, too. The recent Race in the Workplace report led by Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith claimed that the UK economy is losing out to the tune of £24bn a year because black and ethnic minority staff earn less than their white counterparts. And a McKinsey study in 2015 found that companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity were more likely to have above-average financial returns. Bias may be an innate part of human behaviour, but being aware of it and collectively taking small steps to challenge it can add up to a more inclusive (and successful) organisation overall.

Which jobs are most biased?

When it comes to which sectors are most and least prone to unconscious bias, our preconceived ideas about certain jobs may – ironically – lead us to the wrong conclusions. Fortunately, a trawl through the most robust data on the topic shakes us out of some of our lazy assumptions.

Dr Pete Jones of Shire Professional Chartered Psychologists has built up a database of individuals’ recorded biases since 2009. His consultancy uses Implicitly, an online tool that can measure both the strength of biases and their likelihood of turning into exclusionary behaviour. Comparing these statistics for different industries can make for surprising reading.

Percentage denotes proportion of test-takers in each sector with a bias at a level affecting their behaviour (Source: Shire Professional Chartered Psychologists)


The police, for example, ranks low in ethnicity bias, which sits in contrast to the portrayals of institutional racism in the media and popular culture. “This shocks people,” says Jones, “but arguably you still have a one in five chance of a biased encounter with a police employee. Other industries have higher ethnicity bias, but their decisions could have less of an impact.”


When it comes to age, Jones says, perhaps unsurprisingly, bias tends to shift positively towards younger people. “Where you have three out of four people who have an age bias, it’ll be against older people,” he says.

Biases can have an impact in working life when managers feel under pressure – the time at which we’re most likely to fall back on our ‘status quo bias’. “People go for the usual suspects, people in whom they have confidence and comfort, so certain groups miss out.”


Disability shows relatively high levels of bias. However, Jones points out: “While more than a third of academics show disability bias, a small number of those will have a bias in favour of people with disabilities, perhaps because they have a friend who is disabled.”

Gender career (Do you associate women with the home; men with work?)

We tend to favour our own gender, says Jones. But it’s not always that straightforward. In ‘gender career’ tests, women are likely to be perceived as competent by both sexes, yet, when it comes to leadership, the bias is more likely not to swing in their favour. “It’s the notion that women are ‘competent supporters’.”

Gay men

Sexual orientation is more complex. “You tend to get different results because people have different attitudes towards gay men, for example, than they do towards lesbian women,” says Jones.

Shire’s sample is smaller here as companies don’t tend to ask for this test unless they’ve had problems with LGBT staff being bullied.

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