Unconscious bias in business: what is politically correct?

Peta Steele , 21 May 2012


Rupert Murdoch’s recent ‘unfortunate use of language’ at the Leverson Inquiry in referring to David Cameron’s late disabled son highlights some of the contentious issues that currently exist in most organisations. What is right, what is wrong and what is politically correct?

Organisations are being challenged to open their doors to 'people of difference', both from the top down by way of government initiatives and the bottom up with the changing workforce demographics. And with difference comes not only innovation, creativity, diversity of thought but also conflict, politicking and exclusion. These negatives are a workplace reality and not surprisingly are often cited as the reason that equal opportunity initiatives haven't had the impact they were expecting.

Working with many organisations within the Professional Services and Banking sectors, it's promising to see diversity and inclusion very firmly on the agenda in a way it never has been before. The focus is no longer only about supporting underrepresented groups but instead on creating more inclusive cultures where difference is truly leveraged and the acceptance that it's time for majority groups to change.

This concept has led to the dramatic growth in popularity of 'unconscious bias' training. Most often targeting managers, unconscious bias training aims to improve awareness of your underlying biases and stereotypes to enable more effective and objective decision making. And with more effective and objective decision making comes 'good conflict', increased meritocracy and inclusion where equal opportunity for success exists across all talent.

Whilst sound in concept, there are many practical considerations to address first. Practitioners have often been criticised for jumping on the latest fad, and with many organisations looking to run large scale, 'sheep-dip' unconscious bias sessions, some could say this is just that. A fad that makes it easier to not discuss the core issues of representation and equality in the workplace.

Kenexa's research also demonstrates that the least developed behaviours globally in leaders are flexible thinking, collaboration and empathy. Therefore, surely heightening someone's awareness of particular biases isn't hugely helpful if one doesn't know how to behave or use this information once back in the workplace? Recently working with a senior group of managers, we identified a level of bias towards heterosexuality. This is not uncommon and some great work is being done in the UK to ensure equal rights regardless of sexual orientation. Yet if for religious reasons someone is opposed to homosexuality, one would have to question the validity of sending this individual on a short unconscious bias workshop and the expectation that awareness of this bias will influence their future decision-making processes when it involves people of a different sexual orientation.

Arguably, to sustain any change, individuals need to have an appetite for change and realise the personal benefits they'll receive from changing. If someone identifies a bias that may impact the odd recruitment or promotion decision, how can organisations personally incentivise people to change when in the most part, people pride themselves on being good at making decisions? On top of this, on-going research argues that it takes 21 separate occurrences to change a habit. So should we expect Mr Murdoch to reference disability in a way he isn't used to 21 separate times before we criticise him for poor performance? And if we add a cultural context, should we expect him to do this 21 times in 21 different countries where different language is considered acceptable?

I'm not saying that there isn't a place for this type of programme or content, but organisations need to consider how this aligns to other strategic initiatives and ensure expectations are realistic. It's a fact of life that people are drawn to people who share the same interests and hobbies, with similar experiences and backgrounds. But one cannot control for this in the workplace and the challenges of working with people from different cultures, upbringings, and with difference experiences and values are set to increase.

What's important is that people are empathetic and understand the difference between intention and impact. It is easy to jump to criticism of Mr Murdoch and the use inappropriate language in society today. But in organisations where 'banter' happens on a daily basis, shouldn't the conversation be extended to what do we value as a business such as empathy and collaborating with others? The trend towards unconscious bias training should certainly not to be ignored, but instead be incorporated into existing management and organisational processes. By understanding your biases, both conscious and unconscious, the experts believe people gain more objective perspectives and heightened empathy when dealing with others. And this is incredibly important when working with people who are fundamentally different to you.

Peta Steele (pictured), head of diversity and inclusion, EMEA at Kenexa


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Same old, same old

Dr Pete Jones 22 May 2012

It is good to see unconscious bias being mentioned in HR trade publications but Peta Steele's article sadly shows the same lack of insight to the nature of unconscious bias and behaviour change/management as many of the consultants she criticises for rushing to offer unconscious bias training. It also omits the significant and wide ranging scientific research based knowledge we have about motivating people to better manage their behaviour. There bis nothing about the methods based on sound neurological and psychological research available to help them do this. And it makes no mention of the uncomplicated and inexpensive ways in which simple changes in personal and corporate practice can reduce the expression and impact of unconscious bias and its cousin stereotype threat. Of course the work on unconscious bias needs to be set in the wider organisational and strategic context. Of course it isn’t the panacea for the reality of working with and managing people who are very different to us. But we should avoid throwing baby with the bath water just because some consultants don’t understand or cannot apply what the science tells us, or simply rebrand existing management baloney as ‘unconscious bias’ to extend the life of their materials or earn fees. Peta concludes that "What's important is that people are empathetic and understand the difference between intention and impact" which is the same old mantra we have heard from (largely unsuccessful) D&I trainers for decades. Empathy has a neurological base in the spindle cells of the brain, just as unconscious bias has a neurological base in the brain’s amygdale, pre frontal cortex and anterior cingulated cortex (which is where our empathetic responses originate). What unconscious bias offers when properly understood and applied, is a new perspective in understanding what drives our behaviour, and the groups towards whom our positive and negative unintentional behaviour may be directed. It can actually free us from the politically correct nonsense loaded onto our already creaking frontal lobes which have to manage our biases and the day job by well intentioned but poorly informed D&I consultants. And finally, I do hope Peta wasn’t using the Harvard IAT as her diagnostic to declare her senior managers as ‘biased’ towards heterosexuals, because Blanton and Jaccard (2006) put forward a robust case that the Harvard IAT has many flaws making it unsuitable for such use.


Andi Keeling 22 May 2012

As this article appears to be an opinion piece, I am not going to criticise thoughts already shared. I have titled this comment 'Awareness' because in simple terms, isn't it a good thing that we make people more aware of their decision making process and by doing so, influence positive behaviour change which will, in turn, br adopted and copied by others? This awareness can be brought about in many different ways - does it matter how? And as we are all individuals and are influenced in different ways, some will 'get it' and change behaviours from just being aware and for others it will take hearing the message more often, in different ways or further development to really change outputs. All of that is OK, there is no right and wrong. Surely the only wrong would be if we didn't try and change exclusive behaviour into more inclusive behaviour.

Bias has a long research tradition

Dr Barbara Lond 11 Jul 2012

Dr Pete, I agree re the lack of understanding. Bias has been around for years. The research on bias is has been around for years. Psychologists have known this for years. I made the point, and other points, that bias was not even mentioned in the CIPD website a few years when I was completing some research. The training has been around for years called stereotype reduction. We now have a different name. As long as diversity practitioners are women, with little understanding and influence on the whole business, also because of bias, nothing will change. It's laudable that bias is being addressed, but I fear the lack of understanding will render this a fad because of the mass communication way the concept is being talked about and taken up by ill informed practitioners.

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