Unconscious bias training: Is it enough?

5th March 2021
Caroline Parsons
HR Director & Director - Shared Services

Unconscious bias training: Is it enough? Caroline Parsons takes a closer look at unconscious bias training with Sheree Atcheson – Global Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Peakon, Maria Manzoor, Head of HR Ramboll MEAP and Nicolina Kamenou-Aigbekaen – Professor of Human Resource Management and Diversity at Zayed University.

WSP Middle East · Unconscious bias training: Is it enough?

Not able to listen? Take a look at the complete transcript below.

Caroline Parsons: Welcome to the WSP diversity and inclusion podcast. I am delighted to be joined today by three, extremely experienced professionals from multiple industries and backgrounds. I’d like to first introduce Nicolina Kamenou-Aigbekaen who is a Professor of Human Resource Management at Zayed University secondly, I am joined by Maria Mansoor, Head of HR for Ramboll Middle East and Asia Pacific, where her strategic focus areas are diversity, inclusion, and talent management. I am also very pleased to welcome Sheree Atcheson who is Director of Diversity, Equality, and inclusion at Peakon, an employee engagement platform, and much more. Sheree is a multi-award-winning author, ambassador, and speaker, and also brings experience from working with online challenger bank, Monzo, and consultancy Deloitte.

So, welcome, welcome to all three of you! We’re here together today to really explore the role of unconscious bias and what we mean by that. How should organisations respond to unconscious bias in the workplace, in terms of training and strategy? And how might we make a fundamental shift in having more workplaces adopt a more inclusive culture?

So, I’d like to start by asking each of you, What bias means to you and how it has impacted your experience? How does it show up, in your experience, Sheree?

Sheree Atcheson: Bias, to me, means that when we make short-circuited and assumption-based decisions. For me it’s really about us, jumping the gun about taking a short circuit or a short cut to the decisions that we need to make without actually sitting back, analysing the processes around us; analysing the actual situations we’re in, and how our decisions may impact people outside those we, directly and indirectly, identify with. The key part here is that biases play a huge role, not just in the workplace but in everything that we do; how we work every day, and actually how we live every day. How we live with our families, the way we communicate with each other, who we deem worthy of listening to and who we decided we don’t want to listen to; and that’s why this plays such an important role that we actively understand, not just unconscious bias, but actually unchecked bias as well and the biases we know exist, but don’t challenge, because we are probably privileged enough not to.

Bias is about stereotypes, so we have preconceived ideas about an individual based on their typical social group membership.

Caroline: Thank you Sheree, and over to you Nicolina.

Nicolina Kamenou-Aigbekaen: So, for me, bias is about stereotypes, we have preconceived ideas about an individual based on their typical social group membership. Maybe their gender, their ethnicity, their nationality, and so on, and I think an issue, fundamentally in the workplace, is that that bias can have a material effect on someone’s employment opportunities and career development. So, in terms of who we consider capable to do a job, who we consider committed to their job, who we see as having higher chances of… You know, in a linear career model, there’s a lot of stereotyping. Therefore, as an example, in terms of gender, that women may have career breaks, maternity leave, etc that may create a situation where some groups are more advantaged than others.

Caroline: Thank you, Nicolina, it’s really interesting both you and Sheree touched on this idea of decisions being made unconsciously, suggesting that really need to become conscious of the opinions and decisions that are often predetermined and should be reconsidered or reprogramed with the context of each individual and situation in mind. I love the way you describe it as a shortcut to the conclusion and I think, just to turn to you Maria, in a workplace context, where do you see bias? Where does it show up for you?

Maria Manzoor: Thank you so, I think it shows up in, in our policies you know, in our processes and the many different things and activities that we do. If I look at it from an HR context, we have the employee life cycle, where we have lots of different touchpoints where bias can come in and actually play quite a significant role in how we make decisions. So, those are the areas, where we have to focus more on where bias exists and how to look at eliminating some of that in order to have more awareness around it, and to do, to have a process that is more open-minded, in that sense.

Caroline: Thanks Maria and that raises a really interesting point. We are all aware of the fact that bias may exist, and I think it would be impossible nowadays to not be aware of this and the consequences of it, however where the challenge comes is, what should organisations do about it? Organisations often turn to unconscious bias training as, shall I say, a quick fix or perhaps a place to start, but from your experience Maria, how far did unconscious bias training go for your organisation, and were you able to use it as an effective tool?

Maria: So, we’ve carried out unconscious bias training in different and various parts of the organisation and I think it’s a good start. You know, it’s a way to sort of raise awareness and make people more conscious of the decisions that they make, but I think it’s also important for us to manage the expectations around unconscious bias training because that’s only a start and there is so much work that needs to be done after the training happens.

Caroline: Yeah, absolutely and I think, just to turn to you Sheree when you described all those contextual factors that lead to short cuts in decision making, it’s impossible to think that an unconscious bias single event or training event could resolve all of that. So, when leaders come to Peakon, or to you as a consultant and ask you, where do we start? What would your advice be about, where to begin and how far unconscious bias can take you?

We want people to start being aware of what’s happening outside of their own lived experience, around their own piece of how they live in the world.

Sheree: Yeah of course and to echo what Maria has said, unconscious bias training is a singular point in time, process or exercise, to kick off where we’re at. How I describe it is, we need people to move from awareness, into education, into action, that three stage process and it’s a circular cycle process. It doesn’t stop at one and then you’re finished, but it’s continuous and with unconscious bias training, the process here is that we want people to start being aware of what’s happening outside of their own lived experience, around their own piece of how they live in the world and the places that they live, the different class backgrounds they may be from; interacting with gender, race, disability and so on. What’s really important is actually, how do you measure the success of unconscious bias training? And this is where a lot of organisations fall and fail because they don’t measure it, they assume that because people will go on the training, that therefore they will want to make a change. Now, that’s not how the world works, this is not why we’re in this situation where we have all of us on this call who are quite literally, experts in the fields that we’re in, working to fix these things. What we need to do is actually be really clear on what success looks like from unconscious bias training. Now at Peakon, for example, as a tool that allows organisations to measure inclusion, what we do is really understand, if a certain group of leaders is put on unconscious bias training, should their scores around employee perceptions to responsiveness, to non-discrimination, to management support, get better? The answers are, yes, those scores should get better, especially when you break them down from, let’s say, how women feel, how men feel, how people from different backgrounds, etc feel and that’s the real clear piece here that is missing. Ok, you run an exercise, great, but actually, what do you do to check it’s successful? And, if you find it isn’t successful, how do you deal with that? What are the interventions you must have in place with those leaders potentially, that are not taking this on board?

Caroline: Absolutely and I think, the context of that is important as well. So, going on the training on its own is one thing, but the whole context of the organisation and the way in which they measure success should have a strategic driver behind it. Nicolina, in all of the research that you see, when is unconscious bias training most successful? And how can you determine if you have a fundamentally more inclusive workplace? What do organisations need, beyond just bias training?

We cannot assume that even if the training is done successfully, that everyone will suddenly become champions for equality. There are people that may actively resist it because it, they are in privileged positions.

Nicolina: Thank you, Caroline. I think if I could go back, just one step before I answer that, I think a key part of issues with the training, and I’m not suggesting at all that we bash it and throw it out – there could be positive aspects of it if it’s done properly, but the key issue is that we cannot assume that even if the training is done successfully, that everyone will suddenly become champions for equality. There are people that may actively resist it because it, they are in privileged positions. So, there are people who don’t want to change the status quo, and in terms of your question about when it has been more successful, I think research generally indicates that these kinds of training programs are successful when they’re part of a broader initiative to really challenge systemic issues and institutional discrimination. So, fundamentally reviewing structures, systems, and organisational culture as well as policies, and research has also indicated that there are additional components, it’s not just your time in the training.

Key career development factors include having an influential mentor that really supports your career development, being part of an influential network that supports your development and again, we know that some groups may be directly or indirectly disadvantaged, for example, research indicates that people tend to mentor people that tend to represent themselves; so, that’s often very unconscious and more to do with comfort levels. So, unless we really challenge these things, same with networking, some networking events indirectly may affect people with children and typically we notice women, more than men, take care of the home and domestic and child care responsibilities. So, indirectly if we don’t question the overall structure, and organisational structure, and organisational culture, things won’t change. So, it’s about having programs such as this, but at the same time challenging the structural and cultural relations of the organisation.

Caroline: Thanks, Nicolina, and you touched on something there and I’m going to ask you, Maria. So, from your experience, the idea of resistance to bias, I imagine most leaders would never actively resist it but perhaps unconsciously resit it to a point from comfort, for example. So, I wonder Maria you know, what would you say to other HR leaders who face resistance like that?

Maria: I think it’s actually really important for us as HR, in like, many other things that we have to roll out and get pushed back on is, to make the linkage to business and what it will bring and the return of investment to the business. I think that’s where we will get the attention of business leaders and they will understand why this is so important, because, yes, while it’s important from an ethical perspective, it also has a huge impact on business success, especially in the world we are currently in. So, we need to ensure that the gap that frequently exists between what HR wants to push through and roll out, and what businesses view as important is bridged, and that’s really the only way we can make sure we get the attention, and the buy-in, from leaders and that they also walk the talk when it comes to D&I.

Caroline: And Sheree, you know, from your experience, what can HR and business leaders do when they really face a resistance, consciously or unconsciously to inclusion?

Sheree: Before we even move into the actions that probably all leaders and HR leaders should and can do, I think it’s really important to recognise that there are people that will resist this; not because it’s uncomfortable but just because they want to resist to it and we have to accept that a big part of this is acknowledging, that there are people that are actively against D&I work. And so, in Peakon, we have the world’s largest standardised data set and what we saw last year, was a significant uprise and uptake in comments around inclusion and specifically racial inclusion; but what we also saw was one in ten of those comments were from white people specifically voicing resistance to change. So, these people do exist, they aren’t just resisting change because of uncomfortableness, but actually because of very serious, ingrained discriminatory biased reasons. Now, what’s really important here for HR leaders and for leaders in general to do, is be very transparent about where they’re at right now. What we can’t do is move forward on a footing that suggests that we can make everything ok, without recognising where we’re at from an inclusion perspective and diverse demographic representation perspective. Both of those things must exist together and your reporting must connect in that way, otherwise, you view diversity representation as a success metric of inclusion and it’s not singularly by itself. The second thing is a line of accountability. Who is accountable for this work? Why and how? You know, the work, the strategy and delivery, and so on, will probably sit with someone like me, the global director of D&I. But actually, the actual ownership as well also must be displaced across your business leaders too, with their centre of accountability in their areas. And then the third thing is actually the metrics piece, you know, how do you measure success? What will you do when you aren’t successful and how will you talk about that? We need organisations and leaders to really move forward in how they do this work, with transparency and accountability at its core.

Caroline: Thanks, Sheree, some fantastic points there! One of the other factors we need to consider is the business case. So, it’s often cited that there is a business case for diversity and inclusion but for organisations to leverage this they need to consider whether or not their leaders tolerate resistance; because if you’re truly passionate and your purpose is to have an inclusive workplace, then you do need people who align to that view. You can’t, as you’re saying Sheree, force it onto people, if it’s not fundamentally in who they are, which is a really important part of having that ultimate goal towards a diverse and inclusive workplace.

So, I was just going to move on to another, set of questions on leaders again. So, when leaders are the most successful, Sheree you’ve touched on it, and Maria you touched on it as well, they drive for it and they bring their teams along with them; but, it’s a huge agenda, it’s a huge agenda to look at. What are the things leaders have to really say clearly to their organisation? And I’ll just ask you, Nicolina, again, from your experience what are the things that leaders really need to be absolutely clear about, when they set out on a journey to become a more inclusive workplace?

Nicolina: I think we can partly link this back to obviously, really practicing what they’re preaching and engaging diverse, workforces in all areas of their work, not just recruiting at junior levels to sometimes tick the box; but actively supporting relevant training, fair performance management processes and career progression. And what I think was mentioned earlier about the business case, I think it’s important for leaders to advocate for their business case for diversity; to actually state that they believe in the idea that having a diverse workforce can increase creativity and can improve the performance of the organisation, and there is a lot of research to support that. At the same time, however, my own research has indicated that multiple times, there may be incidences that are not for the business case, or, that you cannot always prove a business case for diversity. When I was doing some research in the UK for some smaller organisations, they would argue that for us it wouldn’t make a big difference if we have more women or if we have ethnic minority people. Rightly or wrongly, that was, at least, the perception and sometimes it’s hard to prove a business case.

Other research has also indicated that there are a lot of challenges with having a culturally diverse workforce or diverse workforce of any kind, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for it but you have to accept there will be a lot of challenges, so as a leader, you can engage more with them using the three-level approach, so you could advocate for the business case but also support and be confident to state that we should be promoting diversity because we should – it’s the right thing to do! So, the moral case, the social justice argument and be unapologetic about that. It’s not always about selling this business case you know like this is the only reason, and lastly, the last component of that would be to be firm around legislation and around policies. Based on what Sheree was saying earlier, and what I’ve said before when you asked me about unconscious bias, we know some people will resist it, we know there is privilege, that people want to maintain the status quo. So, showing us as a leader that you are ready to take action against people that are not supporting diversity, both in internal policies but also in terms of the legislation available in the context you’re in, is quite important. So, I would say it’s a combination between the business case, the moral case, and the legal case.

Caroline: Thank you Nicolina, and Maria, from a practitioner’s experience, what’s your response to this?

Maria: What I wanted to mention is that I think it’s really important for leaders to, again, set the expectations of what businesses can expect and what staff can expect, and also be very clear on what is acceptable and not acceptable and needs to be in line with what the company line is on D&I. But also, actively walk the talk in everything that we do as leaders and going back to the policies, priorities, etc, I think while we’re talking about this as a top, down process, it also needs to have engagement bottom, up. You know, we need people to really understand and engage as well in the rest of the organisation. So, it should not just be a top, down exercise.

Caroline: Maria, that’s a fantastic point you make about it not just being a top, down exercise, and as Nicolina mentioned. The business case might be difficult to make but if leaders believe in the moral case and push to talk about it – we can use it as a catalyst for change.

The moral case for this adds an interesting element because as an HR practitioner I know that for all the policies in the world if the culture doesn’t have it if it’s not part of the core of that organisation. It’s our responsibility to be inclusive and diverse and I can certainly see that for the new generation of employees it is an expectation, a non-negotiable part of the company you want to work for and I wonder Sheree, do you see that in the research you do with Peakon?

Sheree: Yeah, absolutely. We’re seeing that people are expecting more, and demanding more, of current and certainly, on our data set, current employees are demanding more of their organisations on diversity, equity, and inclusion. What I also saw recently research that had shown, particularly Gen Z and millennials, are demanding more when it comes to the application process and the hiring process on diversity and inclusion, and what they’re demanding is firstly to have very clear and concise externally facing reporting and so on, on what is happening inside your organisation around inclusion. And also, the hiring managers, the people you are interfacing within that process, must be able to answer those questions in a way that is transparent, accountable, and clean-cut, and when they don’t get appropriate answers or appropriate lines of accountability for this work; they don’t want to work there. We have a generation of people and generations, plural, of people that are able to move around. We have a global talent process that allows people to move around and pick the jobs that really align with them, so, when organisations don’t step up you cannot expect to hire the best talent because you’re not meeting the needs that they need and there’s a great connection here that we see, especially in the evolution of employee and potential employee needs in the last year. Around remote working, around flexible working, around what that means from a process perspective, as opposed to just saying, oh yes, you can work anywhere, but actually from a logistical perspective, what does that mean from a regional perspective? What does that mean for policies you share externally? What does it mean in practice? And we’re seeing the same things across all of this, people want more and they won’t work at your organisation if you’re not going to deliver.

Caroline: Thanks, Sheree and that just says, to the comments that Nicolina was saying about, there isn’t always a clear business case. So perhaps the evident business case isn’t there today, but you have to look to the future and say well, who will be the future of my organisation? And they will demand it of me and that really drives a business case, perhaps different to a more traditional, financial, or otherwise business case. So, I think they’re great insights and Maria is there something you would like to add to this space?

Maria: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So, I want to echo what Sheree has said and build onto that by saying, I think, you know, Gen Z and millennials are looking at having a bigger purpose. That’s very important for them and so, I think, you know, that the lines are getting blurred between strictly what business does and what we do in our personal lives, and I think that, that is also a point we need to consider. Business as a whole is part of society and doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What we do in business has an impact on society and it’s not just, we’re not just talking about a job, we’re talking about the bigger picture here and I think that’s where we as organisations and businesses, also need to lead by example but also walk the talk. In that way also, attract people who want to be part of an organisation that focuses on the bigger picture, and I think that is going to be the future of business.

Caroline: So just to round off this podcast, we set off to explore unconscious bias, our awareness of unconscious bias in organisations, and the impact that has. But to also start to ideate around one of the fundamental things that can shift us forward, and just reflecting on everything we’ve said, it’s evident that this agenda is huge. I think all of us know that, and I think that when leaders are sat looking at their organisations trying to work out, how do move from where I am to where I’d like to get to? It’s understandably a huge agenda and they should and need to turn to experts in HR and experts in diversity and inclusion for support.

I think one of the most apparent things of this discussion is clearly, unconscious bias training is a good thing, it’s a starting point, but the whole organisation has to follow along with that journey.

The whole organisation has to buy into whether it’s a moral business case, as you say Maria, the wider society or it’s about the future generations of talent to your point Sheree.

It has to be something that we’re all pushing to together and just as you said Maria, from every level of the organisation, this isn’t something we can solve through sitting in a board room or writing a policy. The organisation has to fundamentally have this as a driver towards somewhere else they want to be or something they want to grow more of. So, I’d like to finish by asking for leaders who are listening to this podcast, what would you say to them in terms of where to go next? I’ll go to you first Sheree.

One organisation fixing this isn’t what we need. We need everybody to fix this and remember that you play a role in that wider piece.

Sheree: Sure, what I would suggest is, be transparent throughout this process. What we don’t need is a lack of transparency because that means a lack of accountability. What we need you to do is to be very honest, do the analysis to understand where you’re at, so you can very clearly articulate and define where you want to go. Be transparent about the success you may have along the way, but also about the lessons learned, that you will have; because you will have them. Everything you do will not be correct and you should be very open about that because it is important that we focus on this from a wider societal perspective. One organisation fixing this isn’t what we need. We need everybody to fix this and remember that you play a role in that wider piece.

Caroline: Thank you, Sheree and Nicolina, from you.

Nicolina: Yeah, just building on from what Sheree said, transparency is really important and I think KPI’s, having KPI’s, having measurements. So, some metrics would be important because if it’s not measured as we know, nothing can really be done. So, some clear, simple metrics should be sufficient. How many women have been employed but also which positions? How long did it take them to get promoted? Pay gap, gender pay gap, you see a huge issue but being able to be willing as an organisation to have transparency and showing that data is really important. We know that in the UAE that’s a huge issue because it’s almost taken for granted that different nationalities can be paid differently. So, measurement, some sort of metrics, KPI’s, I would say would be central to moving forward.

Caroline: Thank you Nicolina and finally, Maria from you. What, would be your advice to leaders and HR leaders?

Maria: Yeah, I think what’s important here is also to see this as a focus on improving relationships because that’s what it’s all about right? It’s all about creating a safe and open space for conversations and for successes. So, it’s all about improving our relationships with our staff, with our businesses, with talent, etc.

Caroline: Thanks, Maria. If leaders are prepared to make the choice to challenge and take more risks and do things that are not the usual, if they create teams that don’t all look the same and think differently, then they are taking steps in the right direction, towards a more inclusive workplace.

So, thank you everybody for a great discussion, thank you.

Sheree: Thank you.

Nicolina: Thank you.

Maria: Thank you.