Sheryl Sandberg’s recent decision to share Facebook’s unconscious bias training video with the world has brought the entire issue of unconscious bias to the forefront of public domain. Just over an hour long, two articulate Facebook trainers take an audience of its employees on a journey explaining unconscious bias and how it subtly vitiates workplace culture and undermines performance across its employees. For a business that depends on the calibre of its human capital, where it’s people are its singular asset, where its customers include almost half the world’s population, any attempt, however accidental and unintended, to deprecate any section of its workforce can only have devastating consequences for its business.
Facebook’s vulnerability is not unique. One could argue that any business which engages people runs similar risks. Unconscious bias, in all its different forms – age, colour, culture, disability, ethnicity, gender, politics, religion, sexuality – to name just a few, is at its core, a representation of wider society and culture. Bias is not a new concept; it has existed since time immemorial and will continue long after us in one form or another. Its prominence today reflects the realities of our globalised and interconnected world where living and working with people ‘not like us’ is no longer a brief and occasional occurrence but one that has become an intrinsic part of our 21st century life. Therefore, when an iconic business of our present day talks about it, we should pay heed, take notice and perhaps ask ourselves about our own assumptions and biases.
Laws have been enacted and all self-respecting HR departments have their policies, procedures and methods to deal with unconscious bias related matters. Yet, no matter how hard they try, subtle biases remain entrenched often proving difficult to identify, let alone address. I remember being taken aback on seeing the policy manual for expatriate Japanese managers at a client where, concealed among the many useful practical tips, was the remark that all expatriates coming to Europe should not ask or expect women colleagues to run any errands including fetching tea and welcoming visitors.
For many there is a tacit assumption that employees require to be within eye sight of their manager and closely supervised. At the start of my career, it was anathema to even think about working from home. Computers and broadband were not so prevalent and for many supervisors, a request to work from home was actually a euphemism for skiving. They would frown upon and turn down such requests despite clearly laid down HR policies encouraging flexible working. I wonder how such supervisors would have coped with today’s attitude that ‘work is something you do, not something that you go to’ and the bewildering resourcing practices that many astute employers are currently offering.
I have often noticed at my clients that Japanese direct reports of Japanese expatriate managers regularly work till late at night and even on weekends while their European colleagues, reporting to the same manager, are often working more civil hours. The reasons offered to me are numerous and at times rather erudite; they range from time zone differences, the nature of the Japanese employment relationship, urgent missives from Japanese HQ, avoiding peak hour traffic, living alone, challenging perceptions back home that life in an expat assignment is all fun and even a sense of guilt at being selected for the expatriate assignment. I wonder if this is genuinely productive or whether it is simply about a culture of being present at the office and perceived to be a hard worker. Are those working more civil hours any less productive?
While I do recognise there may be some lack of awareness about unconscious bias, I believe, it is the inability to incorporate the conceptual understanding into day to day business activity and routines that causes recurring problems of bias. Training programmes and slick videos do raise awareness; however, real lasting impact can only happen if businesses progress beyond the training classroom incorporating insights about unconscious bias and the underlying rationale in their day to day business processes.