Out-Law Analysis 5 min. read
24 May 2023, 9:55 am
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practices are constantly evolving. Over a decade since unconscious bias first entered the corporate consciousness, organisations are now making progress with a new focus on ‘conscious inclusion’.
Unconscious bias training is often criticised as having a minimal impact in changing behaviours, or else for allowing people to feel absolved of biases that are presented as a ‘natural’ functioning of the brain. All too often this mandatory training focuses on the abstract science instead of on the reality of the organisation – its demographic data and the lived experience of its members – and on the actions people can take to mitigate bias.
Unconscious bias training is often standardised, and administered in batches without follow-up, application to process or accountability. This type of training, on any topic, is generally doomed to failure. In addition, an over-focus on unconscious bias alone diverts attention away from conscious and systemic bias, narrowing the debate on the workplace experience. Some diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practitioners choose to refer simply to bias, irrespective of whether it is conscious or unconscious, and focus on its impact and how to redress it.
Unconscious bias training has created an awareness of the role of micro-aggressions in working relationships, which is the term used for brief and commonplace verbal or behavioural indignities which communicate derogatory or hostile insults. Micro-aggressions may be intentional or unintentional, and so the awareness of how to mitigate such aggressions via unconscious bias training is an apt foundation for a more strategic series of resources which motivate people to take accountability for their actions.
But in the 10 years since unconscious bias first entered the corporate consciousness, there has been a shift in emphasis many organisations have begun to focus instead on the concept of ‘conscious inclusion’. Conscious inclusion strategies require organisations to examine the practices and behaviours that create inclusion, one of which is to be alert to bias and take steps to mitigate its impact. To disrupt bias and build inclusivity, organisations need to take advantage of data insights, implement practical actions, and demonstrate inclusive leadership.
Data insights can be used to remove the potential for bias and encourage inclusive practices. Diagnostic or audit reviews can gather data about key people or processes, such as recruitment and selection. This data then helps to identify areas where inclusion can break down and informs how processes can be redesigned.
This approach recognises that bias can become embedded in an organisation over time – known as systemic bias. It can take a large-scale review to untangle this issue and ensure that diversity and inclusion are considered properly in future. It is important to engage stakeholders in the data gathering and review process so that they support the changes that are needed. This is where learning and development can complement work with stakeholders, equipping them with the practical tools to make better, de-biased decisions.
Our research shows that the most effective DEI training is delivered close to, or at the point of, application and in time-accessible, bite-sized sessions – anything from two to 20 minutes, or a 90-minute workshop. This would mean, for example, holding classes on how conscious inclusion impacts candidate selection in the weeks running up to graduate assessment centres. Delivering these sessions close to the time when attendees are likely to use the training helps to ensure that it is put into practice effectively.
Conscious inclusion learning strategies often focus on the everyday interactions and behaviours that impact most on the experience of inclusion. Brook Graham maintains an ‘everyday inclusion hub’ that has content covering, among other topics, how to run inclusive meetings, and how to give inclusive and constructive feedback. This content is widely accessible, allowing individuals to carry out continuous and self-directed learning on inclusion topics.
Inclusive leadership development is a concept that has grown out of much of the early work on unconscious bias but focuses on the behaviours that create inclusion. It recognises the pivotal role that leaders play in shaping organisational culture. Consciously inclusive organisations are investing in the development of their leaders to lead inclusively, with the most progressive organisations also strengthening accountability for DEI outcomes at the same time.
Research by Deloitte (19 pages / 2.03MB PDF) suggests that having an inclusive leader can boost an individual’s sense of inclusion by up to 70%. The study also found that inclusive leaders can increase team performance by 17%, prompt a 20% improvement in the quality of decision-making and a 29% rise in team collaboration.
In a prime example of the benefits of conscious inclusion, Brook Graham advised a construction firm that wanted to create better gender equality across their organisation. One complication was that the level of gender equality varied widely across different parts of its business; a single ‘fix-all’ approach would not be effective.
Data insights, such as attrition rates and hiring ratios, were gathered for each area of the business before being broken down by gender. Brook Graham’s workforce demographic forecasting tool allowed the firm to create models that indicated what each business area could realistically achieve over a set time. At this point, leaders from each area of the business collaborated in the process to highlight the specific inclusion challenges they faced and identify ways of overcoming them.
Tailored practical actions were then put in place to increase gender balance and fitted with their day-to-day activities. The firm’s leadership was equipped with a range of tools, training, and ‘behaviour change nudges’ to support achievement of their gender balance targets. Naturally, each of these action plans varied from business area to business area. Equipping leaders with the practical skills and techniques to improve gender balance, as well as inclusive behaviours to exhibit, led to positive change, and the programme was successful.
The process also delivered wider benefits too, changing leaders’ behaviours when recruiting and developing their staff. Indeed, as these leaders sought to replicate the gains made on gender balance, they resolved other issues that had been barriers for talent from underrepresented groups at that organisation. The numbers of new hires, promotions, and career development opportunities for people from these groups increased significantly.
Leaders cast a long shadow in the culture of an organisation and investment in inclusive leadership development can be a high-impact strategy when combined with greater accountability for DEI outcomes. Creating an inclusive culture is a shared responsibility, and so the development of inclusive colleagues is also important. This can help create the impetus needed to make real and lasting improvements to workplace inclusivity.
When organisations start to think about moving the focus of their training from unconscious bias to conscious inclusion, it is important to remember the value that their unconscious bias work has as a foundation for more mature and impactful DEI work. Being alert to the different types of bias, understanding their impact, taking action to mitigate it, understanding micro-aggressions, being self-aware and committing to action that promotes inclusion all continue to be important.
Co-written by Olivia Bishop and Kieron O'Reilly of Pinsent Masons’ diversity and inclusion consultancy, Brook Graham.