Understanding our unconscious bias will create inclusive and diverse workplaces

In December, Civil Service Unconscious Bias Training was scrapped. Claire Williams, Managing Director – Operations, at Inclusive Employers, discusses the risks of this and the importance of understanding our biases to create solid foundations for inclusive workplaces.

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Before Christmas we saw Ministers scrapping Unconscious Bias Training in the Civil Service.  As a former “public servant” (old language I know but basically accurate. The civil service, local authorities, health education – everything paid for by the public purse is there to serve and address the needs of the public) I think this is a risk. Our public services have a legal duty to work to mirror their communities, aside from the moral and commercial benefits of inclusion and diversity that we all understand.

Maybe there is a raft of other activity being put in place to address imbalances. The reason for the decision was that the training ‘doesn’t work’ and although we don’t know what type of training was in place, it does raise a question for me about bias. Some people are still not comfortable facing the unpleasant truth that human beings make unfair decisions.

As part of our work to shift cultures and create diversity within workforces, we often help people understand how automatic triggers – our unconscious biases – developed through life, lead us all to judge other people, positively and negatively.

The triggers mean that well intentioned and “good” people sometimes choose to offer a job to a candidate like themselves, they come down harder in performance management on some colleagues, or don’t involve others in conversations about the future. They exclude them. Consequently, workforces are unbalanced, leadership teams homogenous, and services and products don’t reflect the needs of all potential customers.

None of this is new. Recognising this is common sense and a core part of any type of inclusion and diversity culture change programme. If we really want to achieve inclusion and diversity – and we are now a long way off having to make the moral or social case, there is plenty of hard academic evidence out there for the business benefits – we can change our systems and processes, we can create affinity groups and networks, but nothing will change if we don’t help colleagues understand and reflect on their own judgements and worldview. Last year we worked with a client to develop a D&I programme for new employees, which focused on challenging exclusion in the workplace and unconscious bias. These comments from the attendees highlights the value it can have:

“An especially interesting course. I was able to gain new insights and possible solutions when situations might arise, thinking of the feelings of others and how to avoid certain approaches that might cause distress or offence.”

“It was good the training focussed on how to address thinking and behaviours when faced with E&D situations that arise in the workplace.”

We have not seen a downturn in enquiries or bookings for unconscious bias training as a result of the news from Westminster. But we have always recognised, as do our members and clients, that this is one of the foundational building blocks of an inclusive culture. Sadly, we all know what happens when foundations are removed.