Lack of action on bias can stem from boardroom fear
When I talk about bias, I use the phrase ‘implicit bias’. This describes how your mind processes information, how you react to differences, and whether your subtle, nuanced behaviours – or micro actions – make the other person feel valued and included or excluded and uncomfortable. In essence, it’s about behaviour which subtly favours for or against certain characteristics in a person or a group.
Such ‘unconscious’ biases can mean that processes such as recruitment, promotion, allocation of work and performance reviews are not always conducted in a way that’s fair and consistent. It’s important for organisations to take proactive measures in managing biases, and this responsibility needs to stem from board level and the senior leadership team. Are board members and senior leaders acting as good, effective role models or are there behaviours and subtle displays of biased attitudes and behaviour?
There is some reluctance to discuss bias at this level, either because it’s not considered as high priority or because it can be viewed as an uncomfortable and sensitive subject. Given the status of the board members, some may even show resistance to acknowledging that there may be biases at play.
But, generally, the finance industry is recognising the value of taking proactive measures in responding to biases. Apart from anything else, there are proven business benefits to promoting a culture of diversity. Banks with a strong diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy, with an employee ratio that reflects the diversity of society, can become a customer’s choice due to customers from diverse backgrounds feeling better-aligned with them as service provider.
Thankfully, many organisations are taking this seriously and recognising the value of setting up bias alerts at every point of interaction. This includes everything from having a diverse representation to how people are greeted at reception and ensuring robust inclusive practices during the interview process. Similarly, it’s important to analyse the language being used in appraisals. Is there a difference in language used to describe female colleagues compared to their male counterparts? There have been many instances where women are more likely to be assigned to lower rated projects, and therefore less frequently promoted to more senior roles.
Failing to implement effective D&I strategies – which include action around managing bias – begs the question of what kind of organisation you are, ethically and morally, and what the values of the board members and the leadership teams are. There is a lot more in the media today about where an organisation has failed in taking proactive measures, which can have a serious knock-on effect on an organisation’s reputation.
Fundamentally, if those at the top take responsibility for setting up an organisation-wide remit in addressing biases, they will maintain an organisation that attracts, retains and nurtures the right skills irrespective of any differences, visible or invisible. It’s about ensuring that your people feel valued and committed so that they can give their best.
In my experience, within the next generation of young people looking to work in finance, there is less tolerance towards biased attitudes and lack of inclusivity. At the end of the day, this will only lead to higher staff turnover for the organisations that don’t prioritise it.
For more from Snéha Khilay, read our diversity and inclusion feature, ‘Tick and blink: The perils of deprioritising D&I’, on p46 of the Winter 2021 issue of Chartered Banker magazine.