Are businesses doing enough to combat bias in the workplace?

A few years ago I attended an event to celebrate and discuss the importance of diversity. I knew that things weren’t going to plan when one of our keynote speakers stood up and began his speech: “Men and women are not equal”. Needless to say, his point did not go down well.

Whether our speaker intended to say what he said (and I think what he was really trying to say was a much more palatable “men and women are different”, but he insisted on using the words “not equal”) is a moot point. But one thing is for sure, he was only aware of its impact when it was too late.

“One of the biggest, and for the most part hidden, challenges facing business today is unconscious bias.”

One of the biggest, and for the most part hidden, challenges facing business today is unconscious bias — unintentionally using words or acting in a way that affects others negatively.

Individuals for the most part are unaware of the filters and values they use to judge others, since most of them are based on accepted societal norms and behaviours they have been exposed to whilst growing up. These are then combined with deep rooted human behaviours we do not consciously control, like “does this person look like me / are they a threat?”, at a very basic level in the first few seconds of meeting the new person.

It is therefore hardly surprising that unless a business intervenes and not only provides unconscious bias training, but also includes a broader selection of individuals to conduct their recruitment process, the outcome will always be the same.

Many businesses have to come to realise that their clients are also very diverse in their needs, requirements and their own talent. The connections between their people and the client’s people is what creates the partnerships, which in turn creates successful, productive and mutually profitable relationships. Many have realised that diversity at both executive and board level leads to more robust decisions, helps to manage risk and leads to more creative business opportunities.

For those businesses at the start of the journey it can seem like a daunting prospect and although there isn’t one silver bullet, there are a variety of measures they can use such as measuring and sharing success and managing the pipeline, to effect change.

“It has to become part of the DNA of an organisation and not seen as just an HR initiative, before real cultural change can happen.”

Most importantly the tone has to be set from the top, heard by those at the bottom of the organisation and adopted, not blocked by those in the middle. It has to become part of the DNA of an organisation and not seen as just an HR initiative, before real cultural change can happen.

As it stands today although progress has been made at the top, progress in middle management remains woefully slow. Unless action is taken by business a whole, to engage and promote all sectors of society, we will not see the change we need to create a truly diverse and inclusive workforce for the future.

Carol Rosati is Global Head of Inspire at Harvey Nash Executive Search, connecting over 5,000 senior business women globally.

You might also be interested in: How can business recruit, retain and inspire the best talent? Diversity of talent = diversity of thought = great business, says Helen Wollaston, WISE campaign.  Is business doing enough to redress the gender balance? British Glass asks how we can STEM the leaking talent pipeline in manufacturing

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