Beyond unconscious bias

In February 2017 Michael Page HR hosted a series of breakfast seminars on the topic of unconscious bias, in conjunction with Smart Wave, an HR consultancy, specialising in leadership: one-to-one coaching, and building high performing teams to deliver CMI qualifications. These interactive workshops allowed the participants to explore their own unconscious bias and discuss the potential negative impact that it can have within the workplace – particularly from a recruitment and talent perspective.
To follow up on the event, we interviewed Claire Tranter and Steph Oerton from Smart Wave on the topic. 

Tell me about the journey you have taken to get to where you are now in your career?

CT: We have both been in HR Development for a long time and have over 40 years’ experience between us. Steph has a strong background in the rail and transport industry and mine is in food retail, manufacturing and engineering. We have both travelled widely, enjoy the outdoors and balance our lives as friends and parents, while managing our successful training business too!

How can we best understand unconscious bias?

CT: Unconscious bias happens when our brains making incredibly quick judgements and assessments of people and situations without us realising. Our biases are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences, and we may not even be aware of these views and opinions. Or be aware of their full impact and implications. 

In the workplace, what could the impact of unconscious bias and can it really be a problem?

SO: Unconscious bias can heavily influence recruitment and selection decisions, development opportunities, performance management and succession planning. Yes it can potentially be a problem, particularly because of the unknown side of it so you may never know how it has impacted you!

What are the benefits of managing your own unconscious bias?

SO: Fairness and objectivity in talent management are critical as a HR professional. Other benefits include increased adaptability due to more inclusive problem-solving, better customer service because of more empathy towards different cultures, and greater innovation and creativity through being open to other ideas and experiences. Also, increased confidence due to making sound decisions which are right for the business.

What are the common traps of unconscious bias when interviewing?

CT: One is when the interviewer searches for information which fits with a pre-conceived idea. Their intuition isn’t always reliable so they need to make sure they have structured processes in place, as first impressions are so powerful they can get in the way. Re-assess your first impression after 30 minutes!

What do you think is the most significant barrier to HR professionals when dealing with unconscious bias within the workplace?

CT: Measuring the impact and proving the value of awareness and training initiatives. There has to be clear alignment to supporting a business goal, process or procedure. Whether that’s around productivity or engagement meeting Equality & Diversity targets; if there is no tangible measure, stakeholders will not buy into it. There is also the issue of an unspoken acceptance of unconscious bias – if there is a culture of “well everyone is biased so it’s ok for me to be too,” then changing mindset and behaviour will be challenging.

What advice would you give to a talent professional wanting to challenge unconscious bias during the hiring process?

SO: Be brave and challenge decision making if you know it to be wrong or faulty, educate your colleagues around unconscious bias and raise awareness. Review your processes and policies, test assumptions and identify the opportunities where discretion can creep in. 
If you find yourself in a situation where you are not happy with the process and/or outcome, be assertive and ask some open coaching questions that encourages others to reflect on their decision-making approach.

In what ways do you help organisations to tackle unconscious bias?

SO: We’re currently working with an organisation to develop a leadership programme to support their Equality & Diversity Policy, where champions will be identified to support the roll out of unconscious bias initiatives. They are forward thinking and have a very supportive, and open culture but are inconsistent in their approach. We are partnering with them to continue to raise awareness, develop their champions and implement standards. The benefits will be more consistency, improved skills and abilities at all levels in order to manage Unconscious Bias, and a stronger voice for all the communities within the organisation.

What changes do organisations need to make in order to improve?

CT: It’s not enough just to educate and raise awareness by sending people on unconscious bias training to tick a box. That is not going to have much impact. If you want to see some results then you have look at the longer-term goals of your business and have a clear link to the outcome you want to achieve. It has to support your organisation’s values and really be part of the culture. Strong stakeholder support will also be critical to the success of any initiative. Unconscious bias isn’t going to go away, it’s always been there and will continue to be there as long as we are all human.
For further information on the seminar, please do not hesitate to contact Laura Greasley, Business Manager, at Michael Page Human Resources (Midlands).
T: 01212309434