Tackling unconscious bias: it's more than a training course
You’ve already made hundreds of decisions today based on gut feel and chances are that some of them are wrong. SEEK Insights & Resources explores how unconscious bias is undermining inclusion and diversity programs, and what two companies are doing about it.

‘Going with your gut’ sometimes means making snap judgements based on flawed assumptions. The result may be mildly irritating if you choose the wrong dish in a restaurant but life threatening if you’re face-to-face with a shark.

In the workplace, flawed assumptions undermine success through, for example, bad decisions to buy or sell, the choice of the wrong candidate or a failure to promote the best people for the job. Some of the world’s biggest companies see this as such an issue they’ve been tackling it seriously for several years.

Why we need unconscious bias

The problem is that we’re often unaware of the assumptions driving our decisions. It’s known as unconscious bias and we couldn’t exist without it, says Dr Julia Sperling, a McKinsey partner and neuroscientist. At any moment, as many as 11 million bits of information are hitting our brains but only about 50 of them can be understood. And only about seven of those can be remembered in the short term, she says. So we need filters to quickly assess situations and make judgements. “If you couldn’t filter, you wouldn’t survive,” says Sperling. But how to ensure the filters aren’t leading to the wrong judgements? The answer, says Sperling, is a concept introduced by Daniel Kahneman, a famous psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics.

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he discusses the two systems driving the way we think. One is fast, intuitive and emotional, while the second is slower, more deliberative and logical. Fast thinking works for judgements and actions “most of the time”, he writes. But slow thinking can help us “to identify and understand errors of judgement and choice”, as well as help to limit the damage they cause.

It’s more than just chalk and talk

It’s not enough to simply send staff along to a training session on unconscious bias and hope for the best. In fact, research has proven that approach won’t work, says David Rock, director of the Neuroleadership Institute.

The problem is that it’s difficult for us to see our own biases in real time.

“Noticing if you’re being biased is like doing very complex maths. I don’t know about you, but I can’t do one complex equation in my head and make a decision at the same time,” says Rock. “This is a problem, because while you’re making a decision or thinking about something you can’t accurately assess if you’re being biased or not. It’s just too much cognitive load.”

Instead the goal is to find ways to mitigate bias before decisions are made, he says. “You need a framework for people to call it out in each other, in a way; but you need a framework that’s very non-judgemental as well, so you’re not getting negative reactions.”

Blind CVs are a preventative measure

Preventative measures, such as using ‘blind CVs’ during the recruitment process, work best to counter potential bias in decision-making, says Rock. Recruiting staff could be seen as the front line of an organisation’s diversity and inclusion policy but it’s often undermined by unconscious bias. It means that we’re not necessarily hiring the best person for the job but rather the person who fits a stereotype.

A handful of public and private organisations are trialling blind CVs to try to remove the bias from at least part of the process. In Victoria, the state government has just launched an 18-month pilot program with a number of public and private sector organisations to introduce blind CVs. The pilot will assess which personal details – including name, gender, age and location – should be removed during the application process.

Australia Post, which has signed up to the pilot, is just starting work on dealing with unconscious bias. The organisation has achieved “significant improvement” from its investment in diversity and inclusion programs to date, says Lauren Jauncey, National Manager Diversity and Inclusion. “Addressing unconscious bias through our existing leadership programs is where we’re going to see the next step of change,” she says.

Australia Post has begun working on ways to help its employees understand unconscious bias. For example, the ‘Real Stories Project’ invited employees to share their positive stories of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. “We came up with six winning stories and worked with a creative agency, Taste Creative, to come up with a short film series that intertwined these stories, which we’ll now use as an education piece to get people thinking about the different stereotypes and biases that exist.”

Aiming for inclusion at work

If organisations don’t address unconscious bias, they’ll never create an inclusive work environment, says Alec Bashinsky, Chief Human Resources Officer at Deloitte. Worse, there’ll be an adverse effect across the business, including on employee attraction and retention.

However, Bashinsky sees some teething problems with blind CVs for larger organisations that receive thousands of job applications each year. Unless they use an online recruitment process, there’s no easy way of stripping out the identifying data from individual applications, he says.

Deloitte takes a different “more effective” approach to recruitment, says Bashinsky. Deloitte introduced its ‘Inspiring Women’ strategy eight years ago when the organisation realised it wasn’t focussing enough on talented women. As part of the strategy, it identified barriers and biases that had stopped talented women reaching the top and it began looking at unconscious bias about four years ago.

“Our recruiters must provide an even balance of male and female candidates. So if there are four candidates with equal capabilities, two must be male and two female. If that doesn’t happen, you don’t get the gender balance from the start. “We also monitor all our recruitment so we can see what parts of the business are recruiting males versus females; we can see any potential bias.”

And the firm’s measure of success? Eight years ago there were no women on the board or senior executive team. Today, five of the 12 board members are women and half of the 10-person executive team is female.

Broader approach to diversity

There’s certainly been an “explosion” in the need for awareness about unconscious bias, says Diversity Council Australia CEO, Lisa Annese. Organisations, looking to improve diversity know that there’s no simple solution and that tackling unconscious bias is one tool of many that can help, she says.

“You’ve got to then take a broader approach in diversity, because people need to have a reason to change. Just understanding your unconscious biases and how they play out isn’t enough.

“Organisations who’ve been successful in this area have tackled it with a many-pronged approach. They create the culture within their workplaces for this change to be acceptable. They create motivation through either targets or goals for the organisation. And they create a leadership expectation that people will change. “It’s like any type of change; individuals can change but the environment around them needs to change as well,” Annese says.