The real cost of unintended bias in the global workplace

A sign in a Starbucks. (Gene J. Puskar, AP, File)
A sign in a Starbucks. (Gene J. Puskar, AP, File)

In May this year, Starbucks closed 8 000 of its stores in the US for half a day of training for nearly 175 000 employees on what is called “unconscious bias” – a concept which has taken on increasing importance in corporate culture across the world in the past decade. 

It refers to the way in which people sometimes make snap judgements based on their background, education and personal experience. 

They do not realise that the judgements which result from those perceptions are always irrational and often inappropriate, offensive or harmful.

Unconscious bias colours the assumptions that every person has towards defining human identities like gender, race, religion, income level or sexual orientation. 

It also affects the way in which they perceive and act upon almost everything in their daily lives, ranging from diet, to dress code or recreational activities. 

What makes it different from outright prejudice is that people are unaware of the bias, and believe that the decisions which stem from their perceptions are objective, which is not the case. 

Psychologist Daniel Khaneman was awarded the Nobel prize in economic science in 2002 for his groundbreaking work on the concept, which uprooted the assumptions of traditional economic theory – that people make rational choices based on their self-interest.

Starbucks closed its stores for unconscious bias training almost immediately after one of its employees called the police to arrest two black men who were simply waiting for a friend at one of the coffee chain’s stores. 

A video of the event went viral, and apart from the moral imperative for action, Starbucks took the step for its own survival. 

Unconscious bias training has exploded in popularity in recent years as companies increasingly understand that the irrational perceptions which their employees and executives hold impacts on their bottom line, their ability to keep in step with change, avoid costly lawsuits, and to attract the best talent. 

Last year a global study from management consultancy firm McKinsey showed that companies with more gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profits, while those with more ethnically and culturally diverse boards of directors were 43% more likely to do so, showing a significant correlation between diversity and performance.

Although academic researchers have been studying the topic for much longer, initial corporate interest in training for unconscious bias started about a decade ago and began to rise rapidly around 2013. 

At least 20% of companies in the US now offer the training and by some estimates, half will do so in the near future. 

Tech companies have led the way and at Google about 75% of its 75 000 employees have taken a workshop on the concept. 

What makes training on the topic effective is that people are normally unaware of the impact of their perceptions, but they intend no malice and they are able to change their perceptions if they are willing to make the effort. 

It is particularly relevant to SA because of its historical legacy of discrimination and the difficulty which many people have in ridding themselves of an ingrained bias, even when they think they have none. 

“I often define unconscious bias as a hidden inclination or preference that prevents our decisions from being fair or balanced,” says Nene Molefi, president of Mandate Molefi Consultants, which specialises in transformation strategy, diversity, culture change and executive coaching. 

“It is informed by our upbringing and is not anything which is being done deliberately – it is insidious in the system. We all have it.” 

Molefi has lectured on the topic in several countries. She points out that it is crucial for people who realise that they have unconscious bias not to use it as an excuse for conscious bias – which is sometimes the case. 

But workshops have to create a safe space for participants, who must be willing to be vulnerable, she adds.

“When I facilitate a workshop I have to do it with integrity, knowing that people need safety and honesty. No one wants to be lynched or silenced,” she says.

But Molefi also notes that what really matters is that understanding is followed by action, and workshops must provide structure for implementation.

Leaders must realise that they cannot be perfect in carrying out their intentions, but have to strive for authenticity and show real commitment, she adds.

British change and management consultant Sylvana Storey warns that in some cases, unconscious bias training has increased defensiveness, reinforced stereotypes, and contributed to stonewalling. 

The application is not sustainable if it is presented simply as a training programme, she wrote in a recent blog.

“If you remain stuck in training then you are simply dabbling in theory. It is time to move from the theory to the practical,” she wrote. 

Mariam Isa is a freelance journalist who came to SA in 2000 as chief financial correspondent for Reuters news agency after working in the Middle East, the UK and Sweden, covering topics ranging from war to oil, as well as politics and economics. She joined Business Day as economics editor in 2007 and left in 2014 to write on a wider range of subjects for several publications in SA and in the UK.

This article originally appeared in the 16 August edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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