Diversity & Inclusion

D&I Don’ts: Failing to tackle systemic bias

Evy Fellas

Diversity, equity and inclusion is rising up the agenda of more and more organisations these days, in light of the renewed focus on institutional racism that emerged from George Floyd’s murder. Businesses are taking a range of actions to address their diversity issues – race, gender and otherwise – and some of the most popular include:

Although all useful, these steps alone won’t solve the problem. Appointing a Head of D&I and establishing ERGs are check-the-box exercises, if these individuals are not given authority or budget to make changes – as is so often the case. Worst still, employees who give their time to participate in an ERG usually do so in their own free time and for no extra reward or recognition.

And stating that Black lives matter, and listening to your Black employees concerns for just a couple of hours, can backfire if not followed up with substantive action. At best, it seems performative at worst? It could further traumatise employees of colour by making them relive past trauma over and over.

Unconscious bias training? It’s necessary, but not sufficient. There are several unconscious biases that are likely to be at play, influencing decision-making in organisations – so creating awareness in employees is certainly an important exercise.  However, organisations cannot just send all employees for two hours of training and expect to declare victory on D&I efforts.

These are all great steps to take, yes – but none of them will make a fundamental difference if organisations are not ready or willing to address their systemic biases.

What is systemic bias?

Systemic bias, also called institutional bias, is the inherent tendency of a process to support particular outcomes. It plays a part in systemic racism, a form of racism embedded as normal practice within society or an organisation.

Put another way, if we have systems or processes, such as hiring or promotion practices, that have an inherent tendency to produce certain outcomes – like hiring from or promoting a talent pool lacking in women and ethnic minorities – then the change needs to happen at the level of these systems, in order to fix the problem.

How is systemic bias different from unconscious bias?

Unconscious biases, such as affinity bias (showing a preference for those most like us), confirmation bias, and moral licensing are biases exhibited by individuals acting inside and outside of organisational structures. But one of the main reasons that unconscious bias training programmes fail, is because they’re focused on changing individual behaviours, while leaving the systems that enabled those behaviours largely untouched.

Individual biases are difficult to shift in the long term, and the academic evidence suggests that knowing about bias does not result in changes in behaviour by managers and employees. That means the whole organisational ecosystem, rather than the individual, needs to be addressed. This can be done by auditing current company policies and introducing new ones designed to mitigate against bias.

Audit your systems: What are the barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion?

Common barriers, and how to address them:

We don't have a diverse pool of applicants applying for jobs in our organisation.

  • Check your job description wording to ensure it’s inclusive, and encourages all groups of people to apply.
  • Find new sources for your talent pipeline. If your recruiter isn’t bringing you a diverse pool of candidates, find a new recruiter. And look in places you might not normally look, – don’t perpetuate bias by limiting yourself to certain universities, for example.
  • Look at restructuring your referral systems. They’re a great way to get in good candidates fast, but are highly susceptible to bias. Diverse candidates are much less likely to come in through a referral program, so minimise bias by restructuring your referral program to reward diverse referral candidates.

Even with a diverse candidate pool, we still don't end up hiring a diverse talent pool.

Even with lots of diversity in our front-line employees, our managers and senior managers remain predominantly white male.

  • Review your promotions criteria for bias. Who devised the criteria for high performance – was it an all-white HR department together with an all-white, predominantly male leadership team? If so, bias is likely.
  • Look at who gets the high visibility, high-profile projects that typically lead to promotion.  Due to aforementioned affinity bias, leaders are likely to trust those more who are most like them, giving them the best development opportunities.  Consider implementing a mentoring program for women and minority employees to counter this effect.
  • Implement and encourage systems of social accountability. In 1992, Deloitte decided to address the fact that half of the company’s hires were women, but nearly all of them left before they were anywhere close to becoming Partners.  They assembled a high-profile taskforce that consisted of the CEO and other managing partners, and once it was known they were watching closely “women started getting their share of premier client assignments and informal mentoring” and the proportion of female partners increased from 5% to 14%, the highest percentage among the big accounting firms.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is a long-term leadership commitment

DEI is not a training program, or a one-off exercise because #BLM is trending. It is a long-term commitment to building an organisation where the workforce proportionately reflects the diversity of the communities in which they operate at every level – in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, disability and any and all other protected characteristics. This commitment must start with and be owned by the executive team of the organisation, and they must be held accountable to deliver on it.

They must develop an agenda to drive diversity, equity and inclusion concurrently across the organisation. After all, diversity without inclusion will only backfire; it’s not a good idea to hire a lot of different kinds of candidates into a culture where they won’t feel included. Likewise, increasing your numbers of women in management positions is less than ideal if the gender pay gap is not simultaneously closed. It takes a nuanced approach, but one thing is clear: it is only by tackling bias at the systemic level that we can hope to make a difference in these areas.

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