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Government office found guilty of discrimination by unconscious bias

An employment tribunal last week ruled that black civil servant Sonia Warner was a victim of unconscious bias when an inquiry into her sex life was launched by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

At the time Warner worked for the FCDO overseeing grants given to Nigerian organisations.

When working in Nigeria for the FCDO, an inquiry was launched as it was alleged that Warner had formed an intimate relationship with an employee of one of the companies receiving government grants.  

Senior colleagues assessing and conducting the claims against her were found at tribunal to have treated Warner with an “unwarranted degree of suspicion".

The tribunal stated that the explanations it received from the FCDO for behaviour in the inquiry “did not adequately explain the degree of unfairness and unreasonableness in the treatment and we infer that the missing part of the explanation is the claimant’s race".

Speaking to HR magazine Alexandra Carn, employment law partner at Keystone Law, said the case highlighted the difficulties employers have in addressing unconscious bias. 

“By its nature unconscious bias is not easy to identify. However, it remains pervasive in the workplace,” she said.

Unconscious bias training has been a government recommendation since 2017, yet research has contested its effectiveness.

Opinion varies on whether unconscious bias training should be included as part of an overall D&I strategy, or if other approaches are more effective.

Carn said: “Training is particularly important for managers and senior managers, not only as they are likely to be key decision-makers, but also to foster an inclusive culture. However, training does have its limitations and it should be seen as a part of a comprehensive strategy to achieve overall change.”

At the heart of any anti-discrimination strategy should be a strong, well-enforced policy that helps employers protect staff.

Carn added: “For employers, a claim for discrimination against an employer may be defeated if they can show that they took “all reasonable steps” to prevent the discrimination. Having appropriate policies and training in place is a critical component of such a defence.”