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Unconscious (Racial) Bias: Have the Awkward Conversation

over 3 years ago by Thea Fraser

Unconscious (Racial) Bias: Have the Awkward Conversation

Diversity And Inclsion 02

'Since we can’t individualise the blame, we must universalise the responsibility.'

It's Black History Month - an entire month dedicated to celebrating the positive contributions that people of BAME backgrounds have made to this country - and yet, the news is awash with racist chants and Nazi salutes. Yes, it's 2019 and there is no time like the present to reiterate the importance of creating a diverse and inclusive environment in the workplace - whether that's on a football pitch or in the office - we are all entitled to work in an environment where our differences are understood and we are not singled out. That means admitting to our faults, having those awkward conversations and being open to alternative opinions. This is by no means a definitive list, but it's a starting point for things to consider.

(A lack of) Representation in Senior Roles

‘A truly inclusive economy removes barriers and obstacles and offers real career opportunities for everyone to fulfil their potential, regardless of their background,’ Andy Street CBE, Mayor of the West Midlands. 

In 2018, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) presented their Leadership Commission Report: Leaders Like You. The report focused on the experiences of BAME, LGBTQ+, disabled people and lower social economic groups too, ‘better understand current representation of key groups in leadership positions; identify barriers and good practice in overcoming these barriers; and lay the basis for a strategy and action plan to promote inclusive leadership.’ At the launch of this report, Andy Street CBE (Mayor of the West Midlands) said, ‘The diversity of our region is one of our greatest assets but this lack of representation at leadership level in organisations can lead to a sense of alienation amongst certain groups and a feeling that it is not possible to get to the top.’ The WMCA report found that institutionalised racism is one of the key factors contributing to this under-representation and there are countless studies like these:

If our society was built on a true meritocracy, we would see more BAME people in senior roles and anyone who believes any different is part of the problem. Uncomfortable, isn’t it? Our awkwardness around this topic is also a problem: no one wants to have this conversation despite the Equality Act 2010 making it our duty by law to, ‘eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between different parts of the community.’ What happens if we don’t? If we fail to do so, we see a lack of representation in senior positions and nobody can be held directly accountable for it. Since we can’t individualise the blame, we must universalise the responsibility – that means self-reflection, acknowledging the problems and taking positive action.

Here at Gleeson Recruitment Group because we are consistently recruiting on a large scale, we must ensure equality and diversity in our own recruitment process in addition to the service we provide to our clients. When we saw that we were lacking gender diversity across our senior management teams and board members, we ran a management training course that targeted employees from the under-represented group. That’s not to say that they were treated any more favourably or chosen at the expense of other candidates - we believe in meritocracy wholeheartedly. Our aim was simply to ensure that they had the confidence, knowledge and training to put themselves forward for the next managerial position and be considered as an equal amongst other applicants. As a result, female representation at management level all the way up to board has increased by 60%. Our ethnic demography reflects our region and we have strategies in place to ensure that we are able to attract, recruit and retain a diverse workforce. We’re not saying that we are perfect, but we are trying. 

Unconscious Bias in the Hiring Process

We all strive for meritocracy in the hiring process, but unconscious bias leads to unconscious discrimination and acknowledging the problem is the first step towards tackling it. In 2017, BBC’s Inside Out sent two test CVs out to the same 100 job opportunities. The CVs were identical in both skills and experience, the only differentiating factor was the name of the candidate – one candidate was called ‘Adam’ and the other ‘Mohammed’. Before you read on, which one do you think got more responses? Awkwardly obvious, isn’t it? Despite the two CVs detailing the same level of qualifications and experience, Adam was offered 300% more interviews than Mohammed, with the BBC stating, ‘although the results were based on a small sample size, they tally with the findings of previous academic studies.’  

‘Senior management need to be the project leads in diversity and inclusion, not just HR. Everyone needs to take responsibility in order for it to be truly integrated within the business’s culture,’ Nyasha Pitt, Director at Living Content Ltd.

Unconscious bias doesn’t make you a bad person but pretending that you don’t have your own unconscious biases is a practice in willful ignorance. It happens because we are human, not because we are bad people and pretending that it doesn’t happen at all is irresponsible -especially if you are a hiring manager. What we should be doing is building awareness, educating our employees and encouraging conversations to reduce defensiveness. Though internal bias training is beneficial, it is not solely the responsibility of your HR function to educate people. Just in case you didn’t catch that - it is not solely the responsibility of your HR function to educate people. We should all make an effort to address and analyse our own biases and assumptions, think about why we have them and who’s future they might impact. Senior management need to be the project leads in diversity and inclusion because they have the most influence – their decisions and actions directly dictate the futures of other employees and candidates. 

‘A company needs to understand, a diverse senior leadership is so important. It brings another dimension of experiences and perspective to the table,’ Truchio Powell, Chartered Management Institute Board Member.

In an attempt to combat unconscious bias in the recruitment process, 35% of UK businesses are engaging in some form of blind recruitment practice – from anonymising applications to outsourcing the interview process entirely in an attempt to ensure objectivity. Whilst removing details from applications and CVs may result in a more diverse pool of candidates invited in to interview, those interviews are still conducted by humans and that’s where the unconscious bias lies. Outsourcing your interview process: still conducted by humans. I believe that unconscious bias needs to be acknowledged and tackled head-on. Question yourself, ask for a second opinion, have the uncomfortable conversations. Let’s say, hypothetically, that some form technology/software existed that completely automated the recruitment process to the purest form of meritocracy… even then, I would say that hiring a diverse workforce is only half the battle.


Diversity in the workplace is incredibly important, but inclusion initiatives are often disregarded or seen as lesser important, which is simply not the case. We can all do our part to attract and recruit a diverse workforce, but in order to retain them, we must we create and maintain an inclusive environment where all employees are accepted as individuals and they feel that their contributions are valued. Here are a few that we have found most effective:

  • Diversity and Inclusion training - highlighting the importance of creating an inclusive environment and giving all employees the context and terminology needed to comfortably discuss any queries they may have. This should not just be a requirement of the HR Function; all staff will benefit from this training.
  • Create safe places for people to ask questions, the conversations regarding skin colour can sometimes feel a little awkward, however, if the intent behind questions is to create a better, more diverse and inclusive workplace then these conversations are great way to understand people’s experiences and gives better insight into how to move forward,’ Nyasha Pitt, Director at Living Content Ltd.
  • Acknowledge the holidays/days of celebration of all different cultures - be aware of when these days are, give them an equal amount of attention and ensure all employees are offered the flexibility to partake in celebrations.  
  • Performance reviews and employee engagement surveys – providing a platform for employees to raise any queries. It is then down to management to acknowledge and address any issues raised in an approachable and professional manner (and celebrate what is going well!), then communicate their findings to the rest of the business. 

Above all else, we understand that inclusion is important for the productivity of staff and so it is important to us that our employees feel that they will always have a safe place to voice their concerns and that their voice will be heard. This may not be a definitive list, but it’s a starting point. 

What is your company doing to encourage diversity and inclusion? 

Credit: Thea Fraser