Hidden Bias

Some employers are implementing training programs that address employee biases head-on -- to everyone's benefit.

Friday, April 8, 2016
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Annette Morris first heard the term unconscious bias in 2012, when it was introduced as a global initiative by the head of diversity and inclusion at Nestle, the Swiss food and beverage giant. As the U.S. director of diversity, inclusion and gender balance at Purina, a St. Louis-based subsidiary of Nestle that produces pet food, Morris soon became familiar with the dark side of employee bias.

"We all have biases," she says, adding that, through a variety of educational opportunities, HR at Purina is helping its 7,000 U.S. workers uncover and minimize personal biases when performing their daily responsibilities. "It's all about a holistic approach rather than just training."

Unconscious bias exists everywhere and in everyone. For years, psychologists have believed that humans are naturally attracted to others who look, sound and act like them. These preferences, however, prevent employees and managers from making logical decisions in business operations, such as hiring, succession planning and employee assignments or promotions. Some HR professionals are helping workers at all levels in changing, multicultural environments recognize their innate biases and push them aside when making key business decisions.

The concept of unconscious bias training was first introduced to Purina's U.S.-based executive-leadership team in 2014 during the CEO's monthly business meeting. Morris says the training was approached as a business imperative based on how employees were making decisions. Were decisions being driven by unconscious employee perceptions regarding different genders, races, nationalities, ethnicities, religions, or even sexual orientation?

"We wanted to reach all of Purina associates to find out what would resonate without focusing so much on the blame and shame piece that typically goes with diversity initiatives," Morris says, adding that, since this was introduced by the corporate office in Switzerland, U.S. executives didn't need much persuasion to climb aboard. "It's more [a matter of] understanding what your world views are [and] how you bring them into the workplace, and challenging those assumptions . . . ."

Later that year, HR hired a consulting firm to deliver bias training to the company's estimated 90 HR practitioners and 40 others in its talent-sourcing department. Then, in 2015, Purina produced and launched a 10-minute online video called Understanding Bias to introduce the topic to employees. The company also encouraged them to sign up for a half-day workshop called Bias in the Workplace. Offered throughout the year at its St. Louis headquarters, the optional workshop includes interactive videos, simulations, tips for mitigating risk and action planning.

So far, roughly 20 percent of Purina's U.S. employees have watched the video and/or participated in the workshop, says Elizabeth Marengo, manager of organizational development at Purina. "I gave this [video] to my counterparts at other operating companies . . . . It had a broader reach that went beyond Nestle Purina to Nestle North America."

Since HR believed a blended approach would deliver a more powerful message, it developed a suite of different training components and tools. Marengo says HR is constantly thinking about the program's next layer, its next version, and how it can be embedded into company processes to help shape the company's culture and drive employee conversations and behavior within the workforce, community and marketplace.

"We're definitely making a concerted effort to make sure that every year, we're introducing something new so [unconscious bias] stays very relevant in our organization . . .," Marengo says. "This really needs to be a deep dive in multiple facets into the work [employees] do for it to be long lasting and successful."

Last year, for example, Purina integrated a 30-minute training program called Common Biases in Talent Assessment into succession-planning sessions with senior managers and directors. This year, the half-day workshop will be rolled out to Purina factories and remote office locations across the United States. Likewise, bias training will be incorporated into the front end of talent- and performance-management meetings as well as the overall management process.

Although HR is working with the analytics department to put more meat behind program outcomes, Marengo says employee ratings of the workshops have been high -- at least 4.5 on a 5 point scale. Over the past two years, the gender, racial and age balance within its workforce has also improved. So has succession planning, which now involves more diverse employees.

Behind-the-Scenes Influences

Many employers, including Purina, encourage employees to complete the Implicit Association Test that was developed by Harvard University to study subconscious bias. By sorting different images and words into categories, the test measures attitudes and beliefs that employees may either be unwilling to admit or unable to recognize.

"If you want your company to [perform] better, unconscious bias is something you need to embark upon," says Gerard Holder of GH Consulting in Providence, R.I., and author of Hidden Bias -- How Unconscious Attitudes on Diversity Undermine Organizations and What To Do About It.

However, this is not a one-and-done type of training effort. He compares changing people's lifelong biases to stretching a rubber band and then letting go. People can change, he says, but then revert back to old, comfortable habits. "In order for the change to take effect, you have to continuously train your staff."

He points to one company that went one step further. Hiring managers there can no longer see the names of job candidates. By reviewing blind applications, Holder says, candidates won't be unconsciously chosen or disqualified because of their genders or perhaps their ethnic-sounding names.

When making key business decisions, Mike McGinley, managing partner at Element North, a leadership-development consultancy in Washington, suggests that employees also ask themselves three questions:

* What else could the reality be? For example, do you want to hire, promote or award a special project to an individual because he or she came from your hometown, shares your religious beliefs or previously worked at the same company you did? "A natural affinity may be at play," he says.

* What data is present that does not support my hypothesis or conclusion? Take a hard look at the evidence. For instance, why promote someone when their productivity over the past year has barely met minimum standards?

* What's the probability that you're wrong? What's really driving or influencing your decision that may lead you astray?

"There's more power in these questions than there are in the answers," says McGinley. "The discipline to stop and ask yourself [these questions] will bring a level of vigilance that's going to serve you well."

He says his company has been offering customized, unconscious-bias training to hiring managers and recruiters for the past decade. Over the years, he has heard many myths surrounding this topic -- one being that smart people don't have biases. However, intelligent workers, or even employees who are familiar with their biases, are still not immune to their power, he says.

The essence of unconscious-bias training is self-awareness. The more self-aware employees are, the more effective they will be when performing their jobs, says McGinley.

To help such training programs gain traction, he says, HR professionals can conduct pilot programs with senior managers so they fully understand their value; otherwise, the programs may be doomed from the start. By gathering recruitment and retention data, HR can also incorporate the cost and impact of the company's hiring process and failures in its business case.

"There's nothing about this that's faddish," says McGinley, explaining that, with more brain scans now being conducted, scientists have been learning a great deal about how the brain works. "We're going to get deeper [into] the forms and forces that drive human behavior."

Outcomes and Strategies

Unconscious-bias training is mandatory for the 500 employees at the Thompson Hine law firm in Atlanta. In 2014, the firm piloted a two-hour program to roughly 25 employees in its Cleveland office, says Roy Hadley Jr., a partner at the firm who also chairs the firm's diversity and inclusion initiative.

Some of the firm's executive managers participated in that first session and immediately bought into the concept, paving the way for Hadley to roll the program out to the firm's remaining offices in Ohio, Georgia, and the cities of New York and Washington. Since then, he says, every employee has completed the workshop. Invitations were also extended to key clients so they could share lessons with their own workforces.

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"The more diversity in the room, the better off you are because people can share their experiences," says Hadley.

The program may be repeated next year. Meanwhile, he says, the firm hired a chief talent officer whose responsibilities include increasing the workforce's diversity and inclusion. Practice team leaders are now more conscious of work assignments, ensuring that all associates receive equal opportunities and equal work. Recruitment and retention of diverse staff is now being measured. Hadley adds that a diversity summit for the firm's top managers, executive-committee members, practice-group leaders and senior attorneys will also be held later this year to develop and institutionalize concrete steps to minimize bias and increase diversity and inclusion.

Several years ago, Capgemini also made its unconscious-bias training program mandatory for its corporate vice presidents and senior vice presidents throughout the United States and Canada, says Janet Pope, North America corporate responsibility and sustainability leader at the global management-consulting organization based in Houston.

"We were looking at where we were in terms of our diversity and inclusion . . . around demographic numbers or head count as related to women and people of color," Pope says, adding that, when diversity was mentioned, not everyone was on the same page. "One leader might think gender diversity. Another might think broader -- diversity of thought -- and everything in between."

She explains that every business unit at the Paris-based company has an executive sponsor. When Capgemini's program was in its initial phases, the sponsor of diversity and inclusion for North America held a job similar to chief operating officer. Fortunately, that person supported the concept and presented it to Tim Bridges, chief executive officer of North America Application Services, who agreed to pilot the program.

Pope, who partnered with Southern Methodist University in Dallas to develop the initiative, says the program offered enriching exercises that encouraged participants to discuss inclusion, and challenged their thinking about unconscious bias and how it rears its head in the workplace.

In 2013, she says, Bridges participated in the pilot called Culture Bias and the Brain. "Immediately, he saw the value of having these conversations across [employee] levels," she says, adding that he wanted the program to be mandatory for his direct reports but optional for the remaining 15,000 employees across the United States and Canada. The pilot intentionally included 20 people with different experiences, ranging from Bridges and his vice presidents to consultants.

The program consists of two one-day sessions that are 30 days apart. Pope says the first session focuses on organizational culture, introduces the bias of familiarity -- the idea that people are attracted to those like them -- and examines how bias shows up in different ways in the workplace, such as in the forms of sexism or racism. During the next 30 days, participants complete the Harvard University IAT. During session two, they discuss their test results, address the brain science around bias and develop strategies to mitigate bias.

Among Pope's favorite strategies is for employees to stretch their areas of influence or comfort zones through employee-resource groups, which are similar to affinity groups but broader in scope. For example, heterosexuals might become allies of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender ERG. By meeting people outside their normal spheres, she says, employees can expose their biases or at least peel away some of the layers.

Last year, the company hosted 12 sessions. All of Bridge's direct reports -- fewer than 100 -- have been trained, along with several hundred interested employees.

So far, employee retention is being used as a measuring stick to determine outcomes. According to Pope, retention of the employees who participated in the program over the past two years is 12 percent higher than those who haven't attended the program.

"The ultimate goal is for our 180,000 [employees] to be aligned [with] how we can be inclusive as an employer," Pope says, adding that business units in other countries are interested in running their own versions of this program. "We really wanted to make sure it wasn't a desktop PowerPoint, but had enriching exercises that would get people talking to each other, discussing inclusion, and really challenge their thinking about what unconscious bias means and how it shows up in the workplace."


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