Share this content
Discrimination
istock_discrimination_Kameleon007

Why the profession needs unconcious bias training

by

While KPMG’s recent unconscious bias training announcement has been met with mixed responses, Blaire Palmer believes that by challenging our engrained ideas of the workplace, practitioners can help foster a healthier environment for all.

21st Jun 2022
Share this content

It's easy (and fun) to have a poke at KPMG. The firm has been the subject of so many headlines over the last couple of years – being accused of falsifying audit documents and blaming it on a junior auditor, the former chairman Bill Michael quitting after controversial comments made at a company meeting and having knowledge of bribery payments during the audit of Rolls Royce

Now, in an attempt to change the culture, it has been announced that unconscious bias training will be mandatory for all staff. The Mail claims this will mean people can’t talk about their skiing holidays for fear of offending employees who can’t afford a twice annual trip to Courcheval. 

Frankly, unconscious bias training is unlikely to touch the sides of the problems at KPMG. But it is a start. And here’s why. 

We are all biased 

Sitting in a position of relative privilege, it can seem that unconscious bias training reinforces bias. After all, if you’re not allowed to talk about your life, which may include private school for your kids and posh holidays, then surely that is a form of bias against you? 

Firstly, it is highly unlikely that any unconscious bias trainer is suggesting banning topics of conversation. That’s just some journalists, and bruised posh people, being disingenuous. 

Secondly, because most of us operate in an echo chamber, we rarely consider how our behaviour can be exclusive. A senior team I used to work with would go on a three-day sponsored cycle trip every year. They asked me to join them and I made my excuses. I said that, as it was a great opportunity for team building, it would be best if they went without me. The truth is that I have a disability which means I wouldn’t be able to keep up with them. 

Maybe I should have told the truth. I would these days. However, the CEO loved to cycle and assumed everyone did. That meant I was excluded. It wasn’t intentional, just a lack of conscious consideration that a physical challenge isn’t for everyone. 

I later asked another member of the team whether they enjoyed the trip and they admitted they hated cycling but didn’t want to say so for fear of disrupting the nice vibes of the team.  

Unconscious bias training is about bringing biases into the open. It isn’t about censoring people. In fact, lack of awareness of your biases already censors people. It stopped me and the other board member speaking up. Had bias and assumptions been a live conversation in the business it would have been easier for either of us to make an alternative suggestion and it might have helped the CEO see how cycling wouldn’t work for anyone with a hidden health issue. 

Upskilling benefits

You may tell me I should have spoken up. But we already know that KPMG (and many other companies) is not a place where it is easy to speak truth to power. In an environment where their former chairman felt perfectly comfortable claiming unconscious bias doesn’t exist in a business that demonstrably lacks diversity and where a junior auditor is the scapegoat for decisions that were clearly made at a much higher level it’s too easy to put responsibility on individuals who are already disadvantaged to call out biased behaviour. 

Training provides a safe form of words which empowers those without seniority to speak up more safely. 

A diversity and inclusion expert I spoke to recently explained how, in their business, the form of words they’ve agreed on is “Can I check I understood you?” Everyone knows what that means. Without the training it would be a rather empty question. But in their culture there is awareness that the person asking is giving the other individual an opportunity to reflect on what they said, think again about what they meant (and what assumptions they may have been making) and then, perhaps, express their thoughts differently or even rethink their position. 

We have to get away from this idea that those calling out biased behaviour are offended. People who experience bias are not delicate flowers. Quite the opposite; they’ve already overcome huge obstacles to be in the room and are quite used to offensive behaviour. As a Jewish person I’ve been sworn at, told I’m tight (a ‘typical Jew’), personally blamed for killing Jesus and was even asked once whether I had horns under my hair. 

But just because I’m not easily offended, it doesn’t mean people can say whatever ignorant rubbish they like about Jewish people, Muslims, gay people, trans people, working class people or people with disabilities. The part of diversity and inclusion that often gets forgotten is inclusion. 

For people to feel included we need to upgrade our skills. That means upgrading our awareness and upgrading our language skills so that more people in a business can contribute. What would be so awful about that? 

Unconscious bias training is transferable

As I said, this training won’t transform the culture if it’s simply a tick box exercise. 

What such training should do is flatten the power gradient. 

It should be part of a conversation about how open those at the top are to hearing divergent views and being influenced by those views. Yes, you can talk about skiing, but wouldn’t it be more beneficial to shut up and do some more listening? What is the point in hitting your diversity quotas if people can’t actually contribute a diverse perspective once they get there?

In order to be an effective leader, especially in today’s fast-moving environment, what you thought was true yesterday may not be true today. Keeping an open mind, being curious and evolving is all part of being a better leader. Certainly, not doing these things is costing KPMG financially and reputationally. A big business can survive, for a time, despite this. But a smaller one can more easily be taken down.  

If your immediate reaction to unconscious bias training is to ridicule it, perhaps you should be the first in line to sign up. 

Replies (44)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

avatar
By mkowl
21st Jun 2022 10:22

I think I would prefer to spend my day doing real work

Thanks (10)
Profile
By indomitable
21st Jun 2022 11:09

I am not sure how we coped without unconscious biased training before! Disagree that it is necessary or even desirable, a waste of time money and resources in my view.for

As long as a Company or business has robust procedures in place for equal opportunities that should be enough. I find most people I deal with in business pretty fair and I feel this sort of 'fashion' of formalising training for preferences or biases is a 'sledghammer to crack a nut', unnecessary

Thanks (7)
Replying to indomitable:
avatar
By Hugo Fair
22nd Jun 2022 10:21

The best way to avoid giving offence?
Avoid people who take offence!

And as I was taught on coming to this country ... "Never discuss politics or religion in polite company", which might cut down on the sectarian divides that the media like to promulgate.

Thanks (3)
avatar
By TASG
21st Jun 2022 11:17

I oppose Unconscious Bias training because there is no evidence it works and some evidence it makes things worse.

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/written-ministerial-statement-on-unco...

As another Jewish person I find the best policy is to be a mensch. Some will always be riled by others being different, and that's just life for you.

Thanks (4)
Replying to TASG:
avatar
By Paul Crowley
21st Jun 2022 18:06

Good read
Glad HM Gov recognises the issues and have stopped this training and recommends others do the same.

Perhaps trainers need to read it too. But then the negative effects would creep in. I, the trainer, know better than those researchers. But that belief would be deliberate conscious bias that the trainer does not recognise or know how to deal with.

Thanks (4)
avatar
By Hugo Fair
21st Jun 2022 13:21

Aaaargh, not again ... please!

Besides, I don't need further training ... I got full marks when last tested for unconscious bias ("any more and I'll have to assume you're actually doing it consciously" said the examiner)!

Thanks (4)
avatar
By Paul Crowley
21st Jun 2022 18:04

Does Aweb consider that all of society's faults need to be described as if a fault exclusive to accountants?
Money spent on this kind of activity could be better used on worthwhile activities that address more pressing issues.

Thanks (5)
avatar
By creamdelacream
21st Jun 2022 20:23

I would like to make a comment on this article but Richard removed my last comment on the pride article, gave me a warning and then switched off the comments on the article. So in the interest of not making members feel 'unsafe' I won't comment on unconscious bias training.

Thanks (5)
Replying to creamdelacream:
avatar
By Hugo Fair
21st Jun 2022 23:09

The comments weren't just switched off on that article (as is done from time to time), they were deleted wholesale.
Obviously I'm not privy as to what may have been said in some of them, but I recall a few (which, whilst unsupportive of the article and its preachy tone, were not IMHO derogatory or disrespectful) ... so cancel culture seems to have arrived on these shores, which is unfortunate for a public forum based on (reasonable) free speech.

Thanks (5)
Replying to Hugo Fair:
avatar
By Paul Crowley
22nd Jun 2022 10:37

Previous censorship was at least aimed
Delete the comment and close the thread, but often wiping out numerous innocuous replies as collateral damage.

The new regime is a bit like a communist state or 1984: rewrite history and pretend it was locked from day one. Remove the supportive comments.
And expand it, wipe out all comments on all Pride blogs, and also the style guide

The result is less clicks. People read and reread the articles that get comments.

Ben's article was just posative comments last time I read it. I intended to comment quite realistically that his clients were probably not at all concerned his his declared status provided that he did the job efficiently and effectively. Indeed his worry that going public to his clients by linking Aweb to them probably contributed to the growth thereafter. Gays would be drawn in and others it would have no effect on at all.

The other pride article was a bit more preachy telling accouuntants what they must do, so had more discussion on the author's instructions.

The history rewrite means that like the style guide they are now dead articles
Some articles that I initially ignore I will eventually read when I see that people have commented
Articles with no comments are the ones that clearly nobody else thought worthy of even a thank so are not worthy of wasting my time on. They are just cluttering up the site

Thanks (3)
Replying to creamdelacream:
By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
22nd Jun 2022 09:13

@ CC ah it was your fault that thread got pulled. no idea what you said but you should perhaps try winding your neck in and perhaps listening to what people have to say if you had already had a ruler over your knuckles. You might learn something about the prejudices and what other people are going through rather than closing your mind to the fact that you seem to be part of the problem by dismissing the issue.

Thanks (3)
Replying to ireallyshouldknowthisbut:
avatar
By creamdelacream
22nd Jun 2022 09:48

No idea what I said but I need to wind my neck in? My comments were perfectly reasonable, but you wouldn't know as you didn't read them

Thanks (2)
Replying to creamdelacream:
By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
22nd Jun 2022 10:09

I think you will find YOU perceived them as acceptable to you.

The moderators did not, or they would not have been pulled.

At that point you have to accept you overstepped the mark, regardless of whether or not you agree with it. And also to question why you think whatever you said is OK, but others do not. That is where your grow as a person and the very nub of the issue.

Thanks (1)
Replying to ireallyshouldknowthisbut:
avatar
By creamdelacream
22nd Jun 2022 10:27

This is exactly my point, it's an impossible standard to know what someone else will and will not find acceptable.
The rules quoted to me were:

1. We expect members to behave appropriately and sensitively at all times and never to post comments which are knowingly offensive.
2. AccountingWeb.co.uk reserves the right to remove any material from the Any Answers forum without warning or notice as we see fit or if contravenes these rules and guidelines.

The first is completely arbitrary and I didn't 'knowingly' offend anyone and the second just means it doesn't matter if there are rules, comments can be removed for whatever reason.

Let's be honest half the comments on AW could be construed that way but I sense that Richard just took exception to mine given the topic. Again, how would I know what he finds offensive?

Thanks (2)
Replying to creamdelacream:
avatar
By creamdelacream
22nd Jun 2022 10:31

I should also say, I did offer to amend the comments he took exception with 3 times but they were not reinstated then all comments were deleted and ability to comment removed from the article.

Thanks (2)
Replying to ireallyshouldknowthisbut:
avatar
By Paul Crowley
22nd Jun 2022 11:44

You are doing what happened in Birmingham
Objecting and placing blame despite having zero knowledge of the specific item

In the workplace, that would be workplace bullying.
You are suggesting that one person's opinion TRUMPS the other party.

People grow by engaging sympathetically with the other party

On a forum the other responders will demonstate by responding if they have a negtive opinion on a post. If a post is awful the poster learns more from other posters than from deletion and cancellation
There is no one correct opinion on social views

Thanks (4)
Replying to creamdelacream:
avatar
By Paul Crowley
22nd Jun 2022 11:02

+1
A bit people threatening staff at cinemas despite not seeing the film that they are objecting to.

If they think they will not like it then ignore it. I had not heard of the film before the objections, but now I want to see it.

The more people that object the more I want to engage, and the more sympathy I have to the person being objected to

Elon musk seems to be similar
If the elected president of the USA gets cancelled by the idiots contolling a 'free speech' website then the website moderators are the problem. The unelected latter deciding that their opinion matters in the real world

Thanks (3)
Replying to Paul Crowley:
paddle steamer
By DJKL
22nd Jun 2022 16:10

Billy Connolly made your first point when commenting about all the free publicity he got from Pastor Jack Glass protesting about The Crucifixion sketch.

Thanks (1)
Replying to ireallyshouldknowthisbut:
avatar
By Paul Crowley
22nd Jun 2022 11:21

Disagree that you choose to blame one comment for the Putin style reaction of the the moderators
The Mods are grownups and took actions that make no sence making this forum a less safe space for all parties

Thanks (2)
By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
22nd Jun 2022 09:09

I think the responses on this thread neatly summarise why the accounting profession does have a problem in some quarters

Refusal to engage in such issues means you are not going to learn about them.
if you don't learn about them, you will keep on offering people whether you intend to or not. Most people really don't mean to, but struggle to see others point of view. To my mind its that lack of perception and assumption everyone is like you or thinks like you which causes most damage.

I never set out to offend anyone other than those that offend others. When I do it unintentionally, personally I want to know about that so I can be a better person.

Thanks (5)
Replying to ireallyshouldknowthisbut:
avatar
By creamdelacream
22nd Jun 2022 10:01

I'm not sure if you have read the link published above but it's widely known this kind of training does not work.
In addition, offence is very personalised, something you may say innocently could offend 1 person in a million, it's completely subjective with more variables than can be counted. Therefore, it's impossible not to offend some people sometimes it's how you handle it if they raise the objection that counts.
We can't live in a society where it's unacceptable for anyone to be offended ever, it's unrealistic and offence hasn't killed anyone up to now, it's just another human emotion.
Rather than unconscious bias training, just don't work with or hire 'a holes' and you'll be just fine.

Thanks (4)
Replying to creamdelacream:
avatar
By Paul Crowley
22nd Jun 2022 11:21

Offence is only in the mind of the person taking it
It is a choice made by the reader

Thanks (4)
avatar
By Paul Crowley
22nd Jun 2022 12:13

The pride articles had support on one and valid discussion on the other
Why did the moderators wipe comments in their entirety?
Was it because they CAN close a thread but, but cannot close comments to an article? If so it is a design fault

This is not a place where article writers should be 'protected' from disagreement
If article writers do not want their opinions to be discussed then just do not publish.

Thanks (2)
Replying to Paul Crowley:
avatar
By creamdelacream
22nd Jun 2022 12:28

The point I made to Richard is that if you believe in diversity and inclusion then diversity of opinion should be welcomed and all members should be included even if you disagree with them. I got the feeling he wasn't interested based on his responses.

Thanks (2)
me
By Will Cole
22nd Jun 2022 15:18

Afternoon folks,

Just thought I'd drop in to ask if we can keep the comments on-topic with the article in order to keep the debate as useful to the wider community as possible.

Cheers everyone!

Thanks (0)
Replying to Will Cole:
avatar
By Paul Crowley
23rd Jun 2022 11:19

To be honest Will, the on topic comments have dried up. Mostly single direction. The side discussion is keeping the article active.
The article argues against the HM Gov research and provides no research or evidence that such training is effective.

Thanks (2)
Replying to Will Cole:
avatar
By Paul Crowley
23rd Jun 2022 13:34

Will
You deleted the latest on topic comment
Having read it, I thought you would.
Reason for censorship? My guess would be the experience of the third party (not poster). Real life happens. Denying real life does nothing to help society's problems

Thanks (0)
Replying to Paul Crowley:
me
By Will Cole
23rd Jun 2022 14:40

Hi there Paul,

The disappearing comment was actually a side-effect of the deletion of an account made by a user who had previously been perma-banned a while back - hopefully that clears things up.

Cheers!

Thanks (1)
Replying to Will Cole:
avatar
By Hugo Fair
23rd Jun 2022 14:56

Would that be a springtime Lepus (all references to whom seem to have disappeared from Ruddles' account - treating several of my posts as casualties of friendly fire)?

Thanks (2)
Replying to Hugo Fair:
avatar
By Paul Crowley
23rd Jun 2022 17:24

Yes it was a springtime Lepus
Ruddles spotted it on a prior thread as I remember

Thanks (0)
Replying to Hugo Fair:
me
By Will Cole
24th Jun 2022 09:54

I couldn't possibly comment! And apologies for the friendly fire Hugo, the back-end tools take a bit of a 'scorched earth' approach when it comes to things like this.

Thanks (0)
Replying to Will Cole:
avatar
By Paul Crowley
24th Jun 2022 14:06

Maybe that some articles need the pride approach
NO COMMENTS ALLOWED
Todays article is 'this is what we say and it is not up to oiks like you to comment and engage for the benefit of the community'
I numerously ask other accountants to engage with this site, but engagement is being deliberately discouraged on virtue signalling articles. We will never see a poppy. Those people gave their lives so that daft people can say daft things in a free democracy.
Anyone noticed the fallout from FINA decision making?

Thanks (4)
avatar
By creamdelacream
23rd Jun 2022 13:27

Another comment disappeared

Thanks (3)
Replying to creamdelacream:
avatar
By Paul Crowley
23rd Jun 2022 13:36

Best we pretend it did not happen

Thanks (3)
Replying to Paul Crowley:
avatar
By Hugo Fair
23rd Jun 2022 14:48

Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry fields forever
Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It's getting hard to be someone but it all works out
It doesn't matter much to me

Thanks (2)
Mark Lee 2017
By Mark Lee
28th Jun 2022 11:30

Well said Blaire. The majority (if not all) people who seem to disagree here are able to do some from a position of privilege. In the sense that they and their loved ones are fortunate have have probably never suffered from unconscious bias. Which is rather the point. They don't know what they don't know. They assume their view point is superior.

Some may argue that unconscious bias training never works. This makes as much sense as arguing that no skills-focused training ever works.

Such views are typically the result of some high profile publicity as regards a trainer or a course where something went wrong or sounds ridiculous - especially when taken out of context. Then this experience or knowledge is extrapolated to denigrate all such training - regardless of who runs it, how it is structured and how it is followed up. And this seems to be the case with the training referenced in the Ministerial statement.

It is true that ANY one hour or one day training course will, in isolation, rarely have a long-term impact on anyone. This isn't specific to training re 'unconscious bias'.

The real problem is when such training is arranged without any genuine commitment but simply as a tick-box exercise.

Maybe all that is required is an increased awareness and understanding of what unconscious bias is, when we might fall into the traps, and how to be more aware of it, careful and considerate.

It would help (and might even be unnecessary) if everyone accepted that their way of looking at the world is not shared by everyone else. That some people feel discriminated against - sometimes intentionally and sometimes due to unconscious bias.

We're not going to be able to change the minds of real racists, homophobes, sexists etc. But for those otherwise reasonable people who do not mean or want to upset colleagues, such increased awareness can open our eyes and help. Which can only be a good thing surely.

Thanks (1)
Replying to bookmarklee:
avatar
By creamdelacream
28th Jun 2022 20:30

It's not that 'some may argue unconscious bias doesn't work', it's what the evidence says. Have you read the government report on this type of training? It states: "the report highlights that ‘there is currently no evidence that this training changes behaviour in the long term or improves workplace equality in terms of representation of women, ethnic minorities or other minority groups’. It also states that there is emerging evidence of unintended negative consequences"

It later states: "Further evidence also suggests that unconscious bias training may even have detrimental effects. The Equality and Human Rights Commission found that evidence for its ability effectively to change behaviour is limited and “there is potential for back-firing effects when UBT participants are exposed to information that suggests stereotypes and biases are unchangeable.” Instructions to suppress stereotypes may not only activate and reinforce unhelpful stereotypes, they may provoke negative reactions and actually make people exacerbate their biases"

So with the evidence being what it is I am wondering why you still believe it's a good idea?

This is the issue with all identity politics, you look at others by an attribute such as race, their sexual preference, age, gender etc and treat them differently according to those attributes. We should be looking at each other as other humans and judge each other on the content of our characters.

Thanks (3)
Replying to creamdelacream:
Mark Lee 2017
By Mark Lee
30th Jun 2022 10:16

I did read the report and I stand by my view that the unconscious bias TRAINING to which it refers was an attempt at a quick fix. Very little skills and behavioural training structured that way is successful at changing hearts and minds.

Equally, raising awareness may be all that is required. But many of those who feel excluded or discriminated against do not want to risk conscious discrimination. I include myself here. So, we appreciate others doing this on our behalf. And helping colleagues, friends and associates to be aware of the hurt they may be calling through their unconscious biases.

If we make no attempt to help those who are unconsciously biased we all risk otherwise lovely people being lumped in with all those who really are racists, homophobes, misogynists etc.

The whole point of exposing unconscious bias is to enable us all to be more understanding and kind. By definition the negative biases we exhibit are unconscious. As in, we are not intentionally upsetting, excluding or discriminating against others. The more aware we all are of our tendency to do this, the more we can make a conscious decision whether we want to continue behaving that way or to show we care enough by changing our behaviour.

Thanks (0)
Replying to bookmarklee:
avatar
By Hugo Fair
28th Jun 2022 20:31

I rarely go on the offensive, but there are limits ...

1. "The majority (if not all) people who seem to disagree here are able to do some from a position of privilege."
On what possible basis can you make such a smug assertion?
It's unlikely that you've ever met any of the contributors and even less likely that you know anything about their individual backgrounds.
Who is defining 'position of privilege'? And versus what comparator benchmark?

2. "We're not going to be able to change the minds of real racists, homophobes, sexists etc."
This is carefully worded to be defensible (in not directly stating to whom you think those terms apply), but is deliberately incendiary - especially the inference that anyone who disagrees with you should be presumed to fall into one of those categories until they can demonstrate otherwise.

Please stop trying to take on your shoulders the guilts you appear to feel on behalf of others. It is frankly patronising to be told by a stranger that they understand my formative environment (or worse 'feel my pain') ... when they can't & don't, and cause more angst than the receipt of open abuse.

BTW I don't intend to disclose here every facet of what makes me who I am ... but does your 'privilege' encompass:
* having a price on your head when you're under 5 years old; having to change country only to find that you get called names and end up in hospital with a cut face at 6 years old; learning a new language (English) by trial & error; having to change all your names (because the British CS wouldn't employ your father if he had a Wog name) before you're 8 years old; not going to University; etc etc?

So, open discourse and opposing opinions are fine ... but don't try to shut them down by claiming a moral higher ground (especially when it's not yours)!

Thanks (4)
Replying to Hugo Fair:
avatar
By creamdelacream
28th Jun 2022 21:47

Very eloquently said

Thanks (2)
Replying to Hugo Fair:
Mark Lee 2017
By Mark Lee
30th Jun 2022 10:15

My apologies that my choice of words upset or annoyed you. Not my intent. In my experience those who argue loudest against raising awareness and understanding of unconscious bias are least likely to suffer from it. They have the privilege of being part of the majority who do not exhibit a minority tendency - whether related to the colour of their skin, their sexual preference, their choices and so on.

At it's simplest this is evident when white people cannot understand why anyone should be offended or excluded by their words or behaviour, just because they have a darker skin tone.

It's also evident when white people look for ways to argue they are being discriminated against and that this is akin to the racism that people of colour experience.

Like you I don't often choose to reveal why I feel so strongly about such issues. But I am aware that I can make this choice from a position of privilege - in that it's not obvious and the only people who understand are those I choose to tell.

Thanks (0)
Replying to Hugo Fair:
Mark Lee 2017
By Mark Lee
30th Jun 2022 10:14

[quote=Hugo Fair]

2. "We're not going to be able to change the minds of real racists, homophobes, sexists etc."
This is carefully worded to be defensible (in not directly stating to whom you think those terms apply), but is deliberately incendiary - especially the inference that anyone who disagrees with you should be presumed to fall into one of those categories until they can demonstrate otherwise.

--------

Hmmm. Seems you feel you can read my mind - but you're incorrect in your assertions as to my motives here.

Not carefully worded at all. Simply trying (perhaps clumsily) to make clear that the whole point of raising awareness of UNCONSCIOUS bias is to help us avoid unconsciously coming across as if we truly were racists, homophobes, mysogynists, sexists etc. Sadly those who are so minded will not change their minds on the back of any 'training' however good it is.

Thanks (0)
Replying to bookmarklee:
avatar
By Paul Crowley
30th Jun 2022 14:06

You have written words that have clearly caused friction
But you now want to exacerbate by accusing the other of......what exactly?
It is as if you did not follow the the 'causing negative consequences' bit of the research.
There are times when it is best to stop digging.

Thanks (3)
Replying to Hugo Fair:
avatar
By Paul Crowley
30th Jun 2022 13:45

+1
you have my admiration

HM Gov research says it does not work AND likely to cause counter effects.
Endex for reasonable people
Anyone got better unbiased equally extensive research?

Thanks (3)