Unconscious bias reinforces the inequalities that exist in organisations. From the wording of a job advert to choosing who gets a promotion or big project to manage, the opportunities for people to progress can be dramatically restricted due to unwitting assumptions. If senior executives are committed to creating diverse workforces, then steps need to be taken to increase awareness levels of the psychological shorthand individuals use to define others.

Jane Griffiths, Company Group Chairman for EMEA at Janssen, the pharmaceutical division of Johnson & Johnson, says: “The biggest threat to a business like ours is ‘group think’... Innovation is our life blood: if we don’t have the diversity of people, we won’t drive innovation, which ultimately affects our business’ success.”

In order to create the right mix of talent, board-level executives must lead by example. Jamie Wilson, Marketing & Innovation Director at Criticaleye and Head of Women in Leadership, comments: “Recognising and addressing the barriers that unconscious bias can place on an organisation’s ability to diversify its talent, from the top down, will be crucial if boards are serious about building fit-for-purpose, high-performing teams.”

It’s a case of thinking differently about the qualities required to lead successfully. Jane says: “People have a tendency to gravitate towards those who are like them or have common interests. I honestly believe much of this is unconscious but our role as leaders is to hold the mirror to ourselves and our teams to challenge that.”

Stuart Steele, Partner for Human Capital Advisory at professional services firm EY, argues that the first step has to be to ensure that everyone understands how their biases affect decision making: “Do I think we’ll change their behaviour for every minute of every day? No. However, if we can change their behaviour, or at least influence it, at a point in time when they’re making key decisions, particularly decisions which impact an employee’s progression or development… that’s a significant step forward.”

In practice, this means acknowledging that bias may exist around, among other things, class, gender and race. Naomi Gillies, Head of Future Planning and Sustainable Development for retail group the John Lewis Partnership, comments: “We have recognised that by focusing on unconscious bias… we can improve the performance of our company.

“As an organisation we run a number of development courses on unconscious bias which remind the senior leadership team of the role it plays in their daily decision making. Personally, when I’m recruiting, it reminds me of the importance of balance within the team.”

The trick, as ever, is to ensure that what’s discussed on training courses actually becomes reality within the business. Margaret Kett, Partner for Human Resources at executive search firm, Tyzack Partners, says: “It could be coaching, either one-to-one or group, but there needs to be something to embed the unconscious bias training into the organisation...

“It’s the same with diversity and inclusion, it can’t be a standalone agenda. It’s got to be embedded into the core of the organisation. Some are going so far as to link a proportion of bonus to the demonstration of inclusive behaviour."

Taking a stand

In order to break what may have become a facsimile approach to recruitment, it makes sense to think beyond the standard job specs. Margaret comments: “You have to pose the thought-provoking question: does the new incumbent honestly need to have industry experience or could we look for candidates from further afield and develop them – really pushing organisational boundaries.

“Does the person we are seeking necessarily need to have an engineering degree? Because, by insisting that everybody does, you are excluding all these people who may well be superb at the role despite not having a degree in engineering.”

Anne Stevens, Board Trustee at UK children’s charity Over the Wall, recalls one particular multinational she worked for where she decided to hire a deaf candidate. “I can't tell you how much pushback and questioning of my judgement I got when I hired him,” she comments.

“He turned out to be one of the most successful business analysts I ever recruited, but at that time it was seen as taking a real chance. It took a lot of courage because there's pressure on leaders to try and get people who fit into the existing cultural norms. You've got to be a bit more innovative, creative and also courageous about this stuff.”

However, there’s no point addressing your recruitment strategy if you don’t have a culture which allows diversity to flourish. Jane Furniss, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Senior Independent Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) where she chairs the Equality and Diversity Committee, comments: “As a young woman I was often 'complimented' for thinking and behaving like a man. I didn't want to be a pseudo man but to be accepted as a competent woman.

“It won't make your organisation more diverse if you recruit some 'square pegs' and then proceed to shave the edges to make them fit your round holes. Companies need to embrace the differences and capitalise on how they can improve and develop as a result.”

Graham Maundrell, HR Director at specialty polymer chemical business The Vita Group, comments: “You need to create a platform for a diverse group of people to be effective and successful, otherwise all you do is create guaranteed failure.

“That, to me, comes back to the nature and the mix of the people at the top, and their commitment to building a diversified workforce.”

For Serge Colin, Group HR Director at Lafarge Tarmac, if this shift in culture is going to be achieved executives must be both role models and vocal proponents for change: “Executive leaders’ commitment... to developing an inclusiveness framework and work environment is essential; the crucial thing is for them to communicate it as a business case.”

And that business case, says Margaret, is crystal clear: “If you’ve got diversity high on the strategic agenda, and you allow that to be transferred to operational activity… then commercial benefits will inevitably follow.”

I hope to see you soon.