Why the profession needs unconcious bias trainingby
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.
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.
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.
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Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast-changing times. Blaire is a judge in the Investing in People category of the 2020 Accounting Excellence Awards...