Newsletter – April 2021

Spotlight on… recruiting for diversity 

The UK government has declared that unconscious bias training is being scrapped for civil servants in England because, ministers say, it doesn’t work.

At Rare, we came to much the same conclusion about a decade ago. We were conducting in person traditional unconscious bias training sessions for our clients when we worked it out.

That doesn’t mean we agree with all the conclusions the government has reached. Because bias without question exists. And ministers have rightly been challenged about what they are going to replace the traditional anti-bias training with.

The problem with conventional unconscious bias training – including the sessions that we used to conduct – is that it is too broad to provoke a truly thoughtful individual response. People are typically trained on general biases, rather than their own (or their firm’s) particular set of prejudices or preconceptions, and therefore their own ways of thinking and acting are not truly disrupted.

Rare has been helping people and organisations recognise, deal with and overcome obstacles to diversity for more than 15 years. We were awarded an Innovate UK Grant from the government in 2015 to research unconscious bias and to develop training that disrupts bias. Alongside Dr Lara Zibarras, Senior Lecturer in the Organisational Psychology Group at City University, we spent five years researching and developing unique software, Hemisphere, which we are confident genuinely reduces bias. Hemisphere launched with Ashurst, Clifford Chance, Freshfields, Herbert Smith Freehills, Blackrock and other large firms.

Research and experience both suggest that the more specific and relevant a piece of training is to a particular task and context, the more effective and long-lasting it will be. Hemisphere is both geography and industry-specific. It’s about law, finance and consulting firms in the UK and it’s overwhelmingly practical.

During a Hemisphere session, you are asked to score clips from interviews of real candidates, who were in the process of applying to real firms at the time of their interviews. Hemisphere doesn’t use a proxy to measure bias, it uses the differences between the way users react to people when they can see and hear them and when they can’t. It then lets the individual user know what their biases are. The specificity of the training increases its validity and reliability.

The software itself has been closely scrutinised. Over several years we tested successive iterations of Hemisphere on real interviewers in real firms. They shared feedback with us and also agreed to their responses being kept and used for analysis. Dr Zibarras analysed their responses, and found that for 80% of users, Hemisphere was successful in identifying and disrupting bias. In other words, it actually led to changes in behaviour, not just to a temporary recognition, or even worse a negative or defensive response. Four out of five users also said that they’d found the exercise useful.

The UK government’s decision to scrap unconscious bias training in the Civil Service is based on research from Behavioural Insights. Many of its criticisms of conventional training are valid. Just as training needs to be individually relevant to be really compelling, we agree with BI’s view that changes in implicit bias tend to be temporary. Training against bias, just like any other kind of training, needs to be topped up regularly to really “stick”.

That said, there is much in the BI research we would question. BI itself admits that there are limitations in its evidence, and these are significant. It concedes that different training programmes vary hugely, that much of its data comes from university student populations rather than workplaces, and that there is an over-representation of US-based studies. BI claims that there is “no evidence” unconscious bias training has improved workplace equality in terms of representation of women or minority groups. Assuming we all agree there has been at least some improvement in representation, however, it seems simplistic to conclude that training deserves no credit at all.

The government has said it is still determined to eliminate discrimination in the civil service. But it hasn’t yet offered any positive proposals for doing this, having eliminated workplace bias training, which accounted for a large chunk of its diversity and inclusion budget. A few gleeful commentators are seemingly taking the move as “proof” that bias against minority groups has itself been overstated.

We know, from the testimony and experience of hundreds of young people placed into even the most high-powered and forward-looking employers, that bias is a real problem – dragging down business performance and creating sometimes terrible consequences for its victims. Tackling it requires not just training but a broader diversity and inclusion strategy, including data collection, and analysis of adverse impacts in recruitment, promotion and retention.

Our clients are telling us this combination works. Alongside Hemisphere, we conduct workshops with clients on topics such as microaggressions. Crucially, these sessions draw on the experiences of people we placed at our client firms. Managers can’t say “these problems don’t happen at this firm”, because the examples come from the firm, or from one of its close peers. Again, it’s all about relevance. These are the insights that will not just raise awareness of unconscious bias but spur lasting and specific action to counter it.

Raphael Mokades, Founder and Managing Director, Rare

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