Is our Quest for 'Culture fit'​ Helping Bias Thrive in Disguise

You might have been on either side of this well-accepted, but misguided recruitment practice. It goes like this. The person known to either the hiring manager or the recruiter slides in through an invisible back door and straight in to the role. Without competing with other worthy candidates through an unbiased and objective process, they get in on a fast track. This can happen even when the role is publicly advertised. When you are the one who just slid in to that role, you might want to thank your career horoscope for the month and your networking karma that paid off at the right time.

But when you are the one left high and dry, you can feel possible anger, frustration and a great amount of injustice. It's not your fault that you weren't part of the trustworthy circle of the person in-charge of opening that back door. Instead, you hear something on these lines, 'we found someone more experienced and suitable for the role'. But then you get to know there was likely no shortlisting, a fair interview process or a considered selection method employed. Sadly, many organisations can breeze through all these steps or miss some all together, and justify their final hire quite convincingly to themselves and others.

The compelling reasons we don't hear about are that it's often considered a safer bet to hire someone well known to someone inside (or so we think) and definitely quicker, cheaper and easier to sell to the team and the leader they will be joining. Or that knowing someone beforehand or filtering on a familiar ethnic or cultural group is a great way to cut through the fifty or hundred resumes they are likely to get for a single job vacancy. None of it makes any sense or seems responsible and yet, it's the way several organisations can continue to recruit and not be called out for.

This, you might agree, is not what culture fit might mean or should look like.

This is more a nod to cultural cliques and hiring for convenience. This kind of hiring comes with its sharp edges and might not cultivate innovation, inclusion or agility in the business.

How culture fit came to mean likeability, sharing hobbies and high schools.

If you crawled the internet in search of research and data on culture fit, you'll find a fascinating treasure trove of articles, blogs and all kinds of advice on how to prepare yourself for the unspoken culture fit test during an interview. There's plenty suggestions for candidates that include elaborate plans to research the company, their leaders, what the leaders post on social media, coffee outings with existing employees, finding out how people dress up and how leaders come across on YouTube videos. Generally speaking, do that which makes you an ideal candidate who will speak to the selection panel as if you belonged there and you were (almost) one of their own.

The disturbing part is, most of us might have picked up on such advice and found success. It does make sense to research the company and its leaders, though not necessarily to twin the panel, but because it's common sense and courtesy to be in tune with the company you want to join. To pitch yourself as an ideal employee does raise your chances of selection. However, these fine lines of distinction between valid preparation and moulding oneself to answer the culture fit question become muddy.

Which is also when culture fit can begin to make us uncomfortable and squirm a bit in our chairs. What exactly does it mean to be relatable and likeable to a selection panel? And who and what are we relating to? Is it the company's values, work and purpose or our perception of its culture and people preferences?

A recent and relevant report from a British government commission found that those hiring often judged recruits more by their accents and other markers of social class than by their actual qualifications. While this is shocking, it still doesn't surprise us, perhaps. We assume bias and even normalise it without realising we did that. To echo this, in a 2012 paper for American Sociological Review, Lauren A. Rivera found a similar pattern through 120 interviews with professionals involved in hiring at U.S. investment banks, law firms, and management consulting firms. She learned that “shared experiences” was one of the biggest factors being used by those hiring for culture fit.

“Shared experiences was one of the most powerful sources of chemistry, but interviewers were primarily interested in new hires whose hobbies, hometowns and biographies matched their own. Bonding over rowing college crew, getting certified in scuba, sipping single-malt Scotches in the Highlands or dining at Michelin-starred restaurants was evidence of fit; sharing a love of teamwork or a passion for pleasing clients was not. Some (former) athletes fit exclusively with other athletes; others fit only with those who played the same sport. At one hiring committee meeting I attended, I watched a partner who was an avid Red Sox fan argue for rejecting a Yankees supporter on the grounds of misfit.”

So, how does hiring for biographies and social behaviour instead of role relevant experiences pan out in reality?

Ever heard of the Beer Test and the Airport Lounge Test to measure culture fit?

These are real terms that hiring managers and selection panels can use to decide if the candidate in front of them might fit in with their culture or not. Or shall we say, if the candidate might fit in with them!

A beer test is when you ask yourself if you'd like to spend your time with the candidate having a beer after work. Would you enjoy such a proposition? If the answer is yes, then the candidate would likely fit your culture. This is not to say their technical skills weren't relevant, but if you were weighing your options between two candidates almost equally qualified, you'd likely listen to the beer test and its outcome to tip the scale.

We don't stop of ask what if the person didn't like beer or drink alcohol or had no scope to socialise right after work on most days because they had caring and home responsibilities. Needless to say, they might fail the beer test right away.

The airport lounge test is similar. If you were stuck at an airport lounge waiting for a flight, would you want to be stuck with the candidate in front of you? Think about it, if you can't even sit with them in a lounge, how can you ever be with them on a flight from Melbourne to LA? In some interviewers' mind, this is a sound way to gauge culture fit.

Silly question, you might say, but does any of this hold water? Carolyn Betts Fleming is the founder and CEO of Betts Recruiting, a San Francisco-based recruiting firm and says, "Personally, after years of running a global recruitment firm, I have found that the beer test – if you can call it that – leads to poor hiring decisions, unintended discrimination, and often prevents a diverse workplace." 

Is culture fit an outcome of our innate tribal instincts and not a hiring strategy?

Confirmation bias occurs when interviewers make unconscious judgements about a candidate’s suitability for the role within the first 10 seconds of interaction, and then spend the rest of the interview seeking information to confirm this first impression. These biases can be triggered by a variety of factors, including their gender, race, what they’re wearing, their mannerisms, their level of extraversion, and more. Couple this with an instinct-based interview that goes organically as the interviewer backs their several years' worth of gut-feel and experience, we have a disturbing mix of biases-based strategies.

According to Carlos Bueno, product manager on Lyft’s self-driving car project, “We’ve created a make-believe cult of objective meritocracy, a pseudo-scientific mythos to obscure and reinforce the belief that only people who look and talk like us are worth noticing,” says Bueno of Silicon Valley. “After making such a show of burning down the bad old rules of business, the new ones we’ve created seem pretty similar.”

Molly Q Ford, Senior Director of Global Equality Programs at Salesforce, goes so far as to say, “Culture fit is the new racism. Forget that word. It should be culture add-on.”

You might disagree with this black and white view of culture fit and maybe, there's some value to talking about it when hiring. So, let's explore this a bit further.

How prepared are we to interview and hire for culture fit?

In a survey by Cubiks on job and culture fit, 82 percent of those asked said they believed measuring cultural fit was an important part of the recruitment process. But only 54 percent said that their organisation has a clearly defined culture.

Whether we understand our organisation's culture and have ways to measure it or not, hiring for culture fit has become “established as a foundation of many corporate recruiting processes,” says Lars Schmidt, founder of recruiting consultancy firm Amplify Talent, in Forbes. “The term was embedded in career sites, integrated into interview processes, and touted as a competitive advantage for many organizations in the tech community. Over the years, the term has taken on more of a tribal meaning. People who think like us. People who work like us. People who live like us. People who look like us.”

When you are judging for likeability, which is much easier to detect over a one-hour interview, you gather speed, efficiency and numbers quickly. On the other hand, it's time-consuming, complex and daunting to first get clear and unified on what your organisation's culture means, how to assess it and translate it into a structured interview process that can help hire for culture fit, but not at the expense of diversity and fairness.

So, it might be useful to define your culture before it's defined by the person recruiting your top talent. "There's a huge difference between owning your culture and being able to point to it as a recruiting, hiring and retention tool, and having culture be a deterrent to the kind of people you want to hire," says Donna Levin, co-founder and previously vice president of Care.com, and now a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management.

She says, "One of the first things we did when starting Care.com was to sit down and describe the kind of workplace we wanted; the kinds of people we wanted to work for and with, and set to translate those into action. Then, we used those traits, those values and qualities to hire". This is easier said than done. Anyone who's ever tried pinning down their organisational culture and translating it into a culture fit assessment for hiring will know. Defining company culture is an arduous and time taking process, not to mention, there are sub-cultures to factor in, and all cultures evolve, shift and mature over time.

At the very least, one must have a structured interview process that is competency-based and not heavily reliant on behavioural questions alone. Structured competency questions can help gauge a candidate's possible match with the role in question and what skills the team was looking to hire. Competency-based interviews that help assess past behaviours as future predictors of performance are one of the more robust ways of selecting new hires. They also provide consistency, so candidates are measured on the same criteria and not whether their favourite pub in town was the same as yours. Behavioural questions are also valuable to know the personal strengths and willingness of the candidate to display desired cultural behaviours such as, innovation, teamwork or inclusion.

There's a caution even with this successful and proven competency and behavioural interview technique. Remember, I mentioned earlier how there is a plethora of information on how to ace culture fit interviews? Well, there's lots more advice on how to predict structured interview questions and give socially desirable answers to a panel. Interviewers need to evolve their techniques and look for patterns of performance and behaviour through asking multiple questions on desired competencies and cultural values. It also helps to probe the candidate's STAR story to understand if there's depth and repeatability to their response.

Irrespective of the hard work involved, is hiring for culture fit even useful?

There is an obvious attraction to the idea of hiring someone who might hit the ground running but not barrel into the team's current culture and ways of working. Who would want someone new to come in and start saying things that don't gel with most others, or even stir up some level of controversy and conflict. It's a fact that diverse teams are much more challenging to lead than homogenous teams. So, unless you were really alert to not creating replicas of team members, hiring for fitting in with the current culture can go quite wrong, while it might look calm and effective on the surface.

Calm is not always a good thing. Hiring to fit in can unwittingly keep the organisation where it is instead of being able to keep pace with the mind boggling changes in our marketplace. If nothing new gets discussed in meetings, and the past continues to shroud decision-making in murky layers of rank, head-nodding and back slapping, then progress is a far fetched notion. What instead might happen is for costly mistakes to get covered up and repeated in the future. After all, if you are rewarded for agreeing and keeping peace and being a cultural fit, you certainly won't risk dissent or challenge the boss when it really matters.

Not only can we keep adding to the status quo, we can make 'bad fit' hires under an illusion of hiring for culture fit, says Donna Levin, formerly co-founder at Care.com. She goes on to share, "We found through a 2012 survey of our customers that turnover was costing, on average, 150 percent of each lost employees' salary -- dealing with the disruption, search, interviewing, all of that," Levin says. "If your culture's toxic, you're going to see this. And you'll also see your reputation take a hit as people turn to social media to tell everyone how awful their experience was".

So, unless we really knew what our culture was about, what we wanted to fit in a candidate with or how it might pan out in the workplace, we might be in for some turbulent outcomes.

Culture fit or values fit or even, talent fit?

While Facebook leaves a lot to be desired as an organisation when it comes to transparency in recent times, it took a positive step forward to address their lack of diversity. Facebook has prohibited interviewers from using the term “culture fit” as a blanket term when providing feedback on what they liked or disliked about a candidate. Instead, interviewers are required to provide specific feedback that supports their position.

Another way to rethink the term culture fit for the future is to think of it as "Values Fit", instead. Australian software company, Atlassian, has restructured their recruitment strategy, so they can hire in alignment with the company's values and not vague and tricky notions of likeability as a yardstick. “Focusing on "values fit" ensures we hire people who share our sense of purpose and guiding principles, while actively looking for those with diverse viewpoints, backgrounds, and skill sets. We're trying to build a healthy and balanced culture, not a cult", says Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity & Belonging.

The value of culture adds or culture add-ons

At Pandora, a US based music streaming company, the term culture fit has evolved to “Culture Add”. Pandora initiated an internal conversation to understand who they wanted to hire and on what basis would they think of them as great hires. That’s why Pandora looks for “culture add” in candidates instead —new and unique skills and viewpoints that don’t already exist at the company. “Culture add” means shaping the culture rather than fitting into it. Pandora has an integrated B2E (business to employee) strategy, elevating programming around inclusion, and scaling its efforts through cultural storytelling. The organisation considers 'Culture Add' as their Northern Star and for them, "diversity is not a trend, it’s embedded in who we are and ingrained in everything we do. It’s reflected in our rich musical universe and that’s a direct result of people and their vibrant experiences.” As a result it has impressive diversity stats and ambitious goals for the future, both of which can make it a more robust organisation that supports diversity and also team cohesion.

If we are to make progress on diversity goals and create sustainable, future-focussed and resilient organisations, we can't allow ourselves to get trapped in a rigged idea of cultural fit.

It's fair to want new employees that resonate with our purpose, values and business outcomes. All of which is possible while also recruiting diverse and skilled employees who add to cultural richness and spur a healthy amount of challenge, conflict and difference on the way. Being diverse is a strength that a skilled, well-prepared and mindful recruiter can harness without straying from their brief of hiring 'good fits'. Of course, the leaders would have had to do their jobs first of defining and engaging with what their culture meant and what it could mean in the future.

Why Unconscious Bias Training Might Not be Making us More Inclusive

My most prized lessons in being able to confront my biases have emerged from unexpectedly intimate conversations I've had with people I generally don't socialise with. Has that happened to you, as well? I hope it has. Because when that happens, the message sticks in a way that makes us want to be inclusive, not resentful of having to be so.

In this context, a special story comes to my mind. A young man I was introduced to a couple years back had spent more than 10 years in a refugee camp in Kenya. He had now luckily made his way to Australia and was trying to create a new life for himself. Hearing the length of his stay might be enough to evoke some degree of pity and sympathy. Or if we can muster it, even empathy. What we are likely to do less often is to see that 'refugee' as a person who might be capable, talented and energetic about their goals. As it happened, they did have goals. The man in question taught the children in their refugee camp for most of their stay there, and learned a lot about what children and teenagers needed to put themselves back on track after a trying childhood. They put their knowledge, skills and drive to immediate use in Australia, and got associated with an NFP to run their development program for disadvantaged African youth to find their way.

Fast forward to this June, I found myself travelling to Brisbane to conduct a workshop for women who were mostly from an asylum seeker and refugee background - not an audience I generally find myself in front of, so I was cautious that my assumptions needed to be kept in check. I quickly realised that these women had so much to offer and that not all of them were ready to play victim to their circumstances or their past. One of these women enlightened me when they shared what the word 'refugee' meant to them. For them, the word 'refugee' was a badge of honour! Any of us could be called a refugee sometime in life, and it meant we had faced adversity and come out on the other side still standing and ready to take life on. Being called a refugee was something to be proud of and all of us at some point are refugees. Let's not make it bigger than that. Needless to say, I was moved.

Here's an important question for us to think about. After these experiences, would I ever see a refugee the same way if I met them again? You guessed it, I don't think I would. Instead, I'll be curious to get to know them, listen to their story and give them every credit they deserved for their talents and skills. They won't need my pity for sure. Plus, I am now aware that I've been a refugee a few times in my life already. Even while I continued to have the privilege of living in my own country or as I chose travel to another one.

Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a decision.

At the same time, organisations can't wait for every employee to have a personal experience with all kinds of people they hold a bias against. That's especially not realistic for companies that work at scale and operate across multiple countries. Where does that leave us?

I am helping us ask FIVE key questions if you are either planning or already conduct unconscious bias trainings, and then outline SEVEN challenges to its potential efficacy.

ONE: What's the challenge of addressing bias at work?

Deloitte Insights in their report on the gap between diversity and inclusion confirm that, "The most popular solution today (to address bias) is training. But while such interventions are helpful, it appears that making people aware is not enough. Organizations should consider making structural changes, implementing transparent, data-driven solutions, and immersing executives in the world of bias to give them a visceral understanding of how bias impacts decision making, talent decisions, and business outcomes." Unconscious bias training doesn't always hit those targets, it scratches the surface and agitates the current culture, but without necessarily providing a way to navigate that cultural agitation.

There’s certainly been an “explosion” in the need for awareness about unconscious bias, says Diversity Council Australia CEO, Lisa Annese. Organisations, looking to improve diversity know that there’s no simple solution and that tackling unconscious bias is one tool of many that can help, she says. “You’ve got to then take a broader approach in diversity, because people need to have a reason to change. Just understanding your unconscious biases and how they play out isn’t enough."

While we have some good news for example, in Australia, on the front of gender equality and the pay gap, it's not nearly enough given the conversation surrounding it and the assurance by organisations of actively addressing such issues. We are still far behind on ethnic and racial diversity and often don't fully engage in conversations about people with disabilities and the LGBTIQ representation in organisations.

Under such pressure, the world of business has a propensity to look for a quick and doable solution to prickly issues. 

Unconscious bias training is one of the most popular options to address bias, stereotyping and prejudice inside organisations that stall diversity efforts and hinder the execution of well intentioned policies and programs.

TWO: Where are we at with diversity program investments?

In US alone, the Inclusion & Diversity training and program spend is in excess of $8 billion! Most countries are investing millions of dollars in gender diversity and unconscious bias training efforts. Also, in hiring I&D specialists to head newly formed teams, so they can level the playing field for women and minorities. There are compelling reasons of persistent inequality and systemic bias that drive these astronomical investments. Not to mention, pressure caused by costly talent loss, public backlash and an ever watchful media.

When you throw this much money at a problem, you expect to see the situation turn around. Yet, the results after a decade of focus by major global corporations on I&D efforts are not as remarkable as one would hope to see.

*In one of the most comprehensive studies, researchers looked at more than three decades of data on diversity initiatives at hundreds of companies across the U.S. to determine their impact.

Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin, one of the researchers who spearheaded that study, shared the outcomes. To their surprise, the researchers found that it was hard to say, if after three decades of I&D programs, there was any measurable change, one way or another.

The researchers found a clear pattern in the data, one of them was to do with programs that target managerial stereotyping through education and feedback (diversity training and diversity evaluations). These were not followed by increases in diversity. (*source: Fast Company. Frank Dobbin, 'Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies')

THREE: Does unconscious bias training help reduce bias among employees?

With such intense focus on debiasing efforts, what works and what doesn't, is a good question to ask? One of the most popular tools used within unconscious bias training programs is the IAT or the Implicit Association Test. Project Implicit was founded in 1998 by three scientists – Tony Greenwald (University of Washington), Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard University), and Brian Nosek (University of Virginia). While it's used extensively in organisations today, one of the authors, Banaji, cautions us on how even she does not endorse training programs based on the IAT or those teaching it without deep knowledge of the science behind it, some of which is still evolving. Instead, she calls her educational efforts, seminars. Banaji insightfully shares,

"I use the tool to make an important point: we all have preferences or biases. And that there may be nothing wrong with having a preference or bias in one direction or another. Many of our preferences are very helpful, and we might even want to grow them to be stronger. I would like to grow my preference for vegetables, for example, to be greater than it is....When the audience is comfortable with the idea that we have biases, and that we even should like that we have these biases, I teach them more."

Often the IAT in a classroom setting takes a very different turn. It focuses on our biases that lead to potential discrimination and likely stops at that rude awakening to how we might secretly and subconsciously associate men with career and women with family. Then the audience is shared the undesirable effects of such a bias and how we need to watch out for discriminating on the basis of what we didn't even know we held as a belief. The success of such a perilous effort now depends entirely on the skill, knowledge and awareness of the facilitator. Often, the message of such trainings can get lost in the shock and awe of finding out how much more biased we are than we earlier knew or imagined ourselves to be. Mostly, the audience doesn't get over their resentment for being herded into a mandatory or reactionary training, and then told that they are more biased than they believed themselves to be. No one then has the time or mechanism to deal with potential and individual guilt, shame or anger at such realisations over a couple hours of training.

FOUR: What do companies mean when they ask for an unconscious bias training?

Tinna C. Nielsen & Lisa Kepinski write a fabulous critique based on years of experience of having seen numerous designs and content of debiasing initiatives and programs. One of the telling parts of this article says, "Typically an organisation's request is like this: “We would like to have a 1 to 3 hour session that is entertaining, eye-opening, convincing, based on science but not with scientific content, and that does not put the leaders and employees on the spot — they just need to be more aware of bias.” "The other tendency is a fatigue around unconscious bias awareness (similar to the tendency of gender fatigue found in many organisations). Say the words “unconscious bias” and many people now roll their eyes."

It appears as if we are stuck in the middle of entertaining, not so scientific, programs and ones that do have a lot of evidence and leave employees little chance to escape, entertaining or not.

Most employees take a deep breath as they are sent in for diversity training by many large organisations. Giants of tech, accounting and retail have mandatory unconscious bias programs. Even if you have a smart name for them, at the end of the day the message is clear - you are biased and you need to fix this.

FIVE: What goes wrong with unconscious bias training and programs?

A few things have gone wrong with unconscious bias training. I am listing the key ones that are research based outcomes, and a few that I intuitively feel would make most employees disengage.

#1 Mandatory training

We all know this intuitively and through experience - human beings don't respond well to control or coercion. First, it makes people anxious that they are being fixed because they are broken and that they can no longer be themselves. In fact, they will likely be judged harshly for having attended a training and still found transgressing. Second, and this is a more dangerous kind of damage - that of reinforcing feelings of privilege, resentment and revengefulness towards those who seem to have foisted such trainings upon us - women and underrepresented groups. Remember the infamous 10 page Google diversity manifesto that tumbled out in public domain in 2017 written by an 'eye rolling' employee, most probably? While still unwise and a bit misinformed, it seems eerily close to the kind of counterproductive outcome researchers have been warning us about.

#2 Reactionary approaches

When an organisation is caught in a storm, they move quickly to quell public outrage and do damage control to their stock price and customer base. Not to say that they don't have any honesty involved, but that reactionary approaches can come across as token and not heart-centred. The telling case of Starbucks last year is a great example when two black men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia asked for the bathroom key without having made a purchase while waiting for a business associate to arrive. Starbucks employees called the police, eventually leading to the two men being arrested and escorted out. Howard Schulz, the CEO of Starbucks, quickly got into action and famously shut down 8,000 US coffee shops for the afternoon to provide racial bias training to all of its employees. For their own sakes, I really hope they did a great job. Because this is the kind of situation from where resentment, fear and employee backlash can emerge instead of reducing bias and cultivating inclusion.

#3 Naming it unconscious bias or bias awareness training

It seems there is a risk in naming a training as such because it's going to trigger connotations/associations in the unconscious mind that activates counterproductive feelings, like, ‘I am going to be fixed’ (anxiety) or ‘I’ll lose privilege, status, and power.’ (loss-aversion bias) or 'Now I’ll get them and show them how wrong they are.’ (revenge). Framing the effort to reduce or mitigate bias is important. It's still uncommon to find unconscious bias training as an embedded part of leadership programs or performance development training programs. The meaning we attach to words changes how we feel about the overall effort. Even if researchers hadn't told us this, you might agree, this is communication basics, and we've known it all along.

#4 The training is done out of context

Another important piece of research is that when you craft training content that is disconnected with actual work scenarios, it misses the mark. Very often, unconscious bias training is outsourced by organisations. Most programs begin with one of these two popular slides - we are bombarded by millions of bits of data, so we use heuristics or short cuts to make sense of our world, in a nutshell, we use bias to function. The other is about legal obligations and negative motivators, and how being biased can get companies sued and employees fired. I'd be scared for sure, but might not go out feeling inclusive. Realistically speaking, not all consultants might be willing to build customised content for each client, and even if they did, the organisation might be unwilling to foot the bill. Debiasing efforts are more likely to show positive outcomes when they emerge proactively from within the organisation and are rich in context and language that is already familiar to employees.

#5 'High prevalence of unconscious bias' approach

Human beings are curious creatures, so when you tell them that there is high prevalence of a behaviour, in the hope that they will reduce that behaviour, they do the opposite. There is evidence to prove that our brains tend to repeat behaviours that we see as already prevalent. We want to be part of the majority, not the minority. We reason, if so many people are already doing something, it wouldn't hurt if I did just a little bit of it, too. We want to do what everyone else is doing, not what very few are doing. Most unconscious bias trainings emphasise how bias is all pervasive, that we are biased without exception, and that we need to watch for it and reduce it. Guess what, we are tempted to do the opposite! There is a risk employees might go out with an unconscious message to repeat biased behaviours instead of reducing them. Good intentions gone awry, you might say.

#6 We are all responsible, so no one is accountable

The term unconscious is a tricky one. It signifies behaviours we are not conscious of, and hence, can't possibly be aware of or held responsible for. In essence, I am a passive actor in being biased. How do you catch bias when you don't even know you are biased and what about exactly? So, the easy way out is to relinquish personal responsibility and not do anything about it. I find it dangerous to unwittingly suggest to a bunch of employees that they didn't do anything that was prejudiced or even bigoted, in fact, they aren't even in control. Forces out of their control made them behave in ways that were unfair to others and put them down. You can see how this is not going down a good path. Unconscious bias training efforts need to strike a delicate balance between why we aren't bad people for being biased, but that we are accountable to behave in a fair and respectful manner, nevertheless.

#7 Too much focus on people, too little on processes

Even if I&D teams had the best intentions while conducting bias awareness training, they can't avoid also dealing with their current organisational culture and systemic issues. Bias does not flourish for no reason and without support. Crucial processes such as performance reviews, promotions, task force selections, overseas assignments and recruitment generally evolve over time to reflect the sum total of its workforce and leadership beliefs. To assume that all of these processes are fair and square because well laid out policies or good intentions say so, is being naive. For example, while writing job descriptions or advertising for roles, “Even subtle word choices can have a strong impact on the application pool,” says Francesca Gino a Professor at Harvard. Research shows that masculine language, including adjectives like “competitive” and “determined,” results in women’s “perceiving that they would not belong in the work environment.” On the other hand, words like “collaborative” and “cooperative” tend to draw more women than men.

Debiasing is very tough, if not impossible, to accomplish without focusing on at least some of these challenges, if not all. Without that, organisations can continue to pump money, resources and people into diversity efforts and not see the fruits of their labour.

Being inclusive might need something more involved and intimate than just a spate of unconscious bias trainings. Leaders across the board need to develop Inclusive Leadership skills that allow for an open, brave and vulnerable conversation on differences. These leaders can set the tone for the team to face their fears, hesitations and biases around differences and that diversity makes them stronger as a team. Then if the team were to receive the message on how we are all biased and there are pros and cons to it, there's a greater likelihood that they'd be more keen to understand and learn, and not get more biased or disengaged due to such trainings.

Inclusion works best in an environment of safety and openness.

I look forward to hearing how your experience has been at your organisation on unconscious bias training, any measurements you have done and to add to the conversation here.