Arran Heal: Can HR ever deal with unconscious bias?

More tribunal cases are turning on the role of unconscious bias. The King’s College NHS Foundation Trust last year (2019) paid out £1 million to an Afro-Caribbean member of staff who’d been “assumed” to be the aggressor in an incident with a visitor to the site. The value of the investigation had been undermined by unconscious bias.

The concept of unconscious bias goes a long way to explaining why society continues to be so unequal – in terms of gender, race and class – despite the introduction of legislation, policies, values and campaigns around equality.

So what can employers do? Advice tends to emphasise awareness – don’t underestimate the risk of unconscious bias in recruitment and selection, how managers treat their reports – and to encourage training in the issues.

There’s also a test. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) was developed by social psychologists at the University of Washington and Yale which is used by employers to encourage greater self-awareness. This was the tool used in research that found that unconscious bias affected 90-95 per cent of people.

Human beings are partial and prejudiced by all of our individual experiences. No amount of diversity training is going to reverse a lifetime of experience. None of us, no matter how fair-minded, can be forced into a state of objectivity.

Delving into the unconscious, attempting to uncover, decode our inmost thoughts is at best impractical. What matters is how we respond to situations in the workplace, how we exercise our judgment. Should HR, then, just be setting out policies warning of the dangers of unconscious bias, get tougher on managers and recruiters?

It’s a complicated and subtle set of issues, all of them rooted in the need for honesty and trust. We need to be able to believe in a principle of openness. Are we willing to talk openly about concerns around bias, and deal with the concerns in a grown-up way?

Having those mature, self-aware conversations takes a good level of skills – what we call Conversational Intelligence. That means equipping employees with the ability to have good conversations, handle disagreements, conflict, sensitivities and differences of perspective in mature and constructive ways. The practical way of addressing unconscious bias is not to create a greater sense of nervousness and a need for doubt and repression, but a more positive spirit of openness and understanding. We have to keep talking.

Organisations recruit the best talent they can. But there’s nothing to guarantee those talented people work together effectively.

The formalities of professional relationships and assertion of levels of power: misunderstandings, insecurities, the need to avoid disagreements and challenge, simmering grievances.

All of them are a typical part of day-to-day working lives, and all lead to stumbling team and organisational performance.

These are the unseen, unspoken issues that managers don’t see until there’s already a problem and it’s too late. By that stage there’s the need for management time – awkward, gritted-teeth management time – to be spent on defusing conflict, re-working teams, even the potential for losing staff and dealing with employment tribunals.

Clearing the air, and clearing the way to creating high-performance teams, takes ‘conversational intelligence’. Team members across levels need to be working in a culture of good Conversational Intelligence. Managers need to take the lead, establish processes and act as the models of good practice.

  • Talking not telling

Teams work best when people don’t just do as they’re told: every member plays a full part, feeling able to take as much responsibility and contribute as much as the lead manager. Teams become more creative, motivated and engaged. This requires the development of a number of interlocking skills in the manager and in the team: building rapport, active listening, emotional intelligence, and managing difficult conversations. People can admit their mistakes, discuss challenges openly, rather than keeping problems bottled up – leading naturally to more learning, better decision-making, and constant support for learning and development – rather than relying on a once a year appraisal.

  • Collaboration not compliance

Real team-working happens when managers don’t rely on power and control. They don’t use tactics like their charisma, authority and promises to motivate people and bolster their own position. A coaching style, based on two-way conversations, supports the growth of motivation and commitment rather than setting limits based around hierarchy. Fundamentally, managers need to make mature decisions about when they need to use their authority, when it’s time for control, when for collaboration. Managing open conversations – particularly when they are the kinds of difficult conversations needed to clear the air – are based around core attitudes of honesty, benevolence and courage.

  • Being open about performance

Performance management discussions are a flashpoint in workplace relationships (second only to behaviour and conduct for causing employment disputes, according to a CIPD study). They are also the bedrock to a culture of good conversations and better teams. How and when managers handle issues of individual performance sets the tone for day-to-day working practices. Instead of seeing a conversation about performance as something difficult, only possible within the confines of a formal system, managers should be confident about being proactive, and, crucially, make performance management part of ‘how we do business’ rather than an annual event.





Arran Heal is Managing Director at workplace relationships specialists CMP. CMP is a pioneer of approaches to conflict management and works to improve workplace relationships - a prime mover in the development and adoption of professional approaches to mediation services, investigations and Conversational Intelligence. For the past 25 years it has been working with some of the UK"s biggest employers, including the NHS, British Army, government departments and universities.