Peeling back the onion: A global firm shares expertise on tackling unconscious bias

We all have biases hard-wired into our brains. Unfortunately for us and the people around us, they belong in the quickfire area of our brain that is impossible to control. We’re been programmed since birth by all manner of triggers - parental feedback, social steers, media slants, to feel certain ways about certain things, but (and here’s the rub) not to notice this reaction.

It’s an uncomfortable topic, because we all organise our social realms by categorising people in different identities or social groups. We’re all responsible for peeling back the layers of our biases and should be held accountable for the actions that arise out of them. But what practical steps can we take to eliminate them in the world of work?

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Eliminating bias in hiring decisions

Grant Thornton UK LLP is part of the Grant Thornton network of independent assurance, tax and advisory firms in 135 countries and they are forward thinkers when it comes to this tricky sphere.

They take action right from the off, working to eliminate unconscious bias during the hiring process in multiple ways, including the trialling of applying positive action for ethnic minority candidates and the use of anonymous CVs in parts of their audit, advisory and central client services departments.

Jemma Pearson, Strategic Resourcing and Inclusion Manager at Grant Thornton explained that the business has been trialling anonymous CVs successfully for the past few months with all personal information (including name and university names) removed before the CV is sent to be shortlisted. “We also remove anything that might lead someone to make assumptions about the candidate’s gender, ethnicity or parental/carer status. This ensures our hiring managers just see the skills, experience and education level of our candidates and no unconscious bias can occur when making a decision on whether to interview.”

At Grant Thornton, hiring managers are given annual interview training which covers how to deliver a great interview, what questions to ask or not ask, and includes key training around unconscious bias within the recruitment process. All hiring managers and recruitment teams undertake unconscious bias training annually and content is promoted across the board internally to encourage everyday inclusion. 

A recent redesign of the interview feedback process at Grant Thornton now includes a new compulsory scoring system against quality, technical and ethical questions. Jemma said: “We constantly review our recruitment process to look out for any barrier or potential areas that could lead to unconscious bias. We’re helping to ensure our hiring managers are making recruitment decisions based purely on the candidates’ skills and experiences, as stated in the job description, rather than any other reason, such as team or cultural fit.”

Removing blockers to progress

Jemma added: “Change starts firstly for each individual and that’s why we encourage a leverage model to embed I&D into everyone’s role and thinking. That’s why unconscious bias training is so important to us. It’s also about removing systemic bias by recognising the blockers in the system and removing them. For example; ensuring feedback is timely, objective and based on fact rather than general feelings, helps to eliminate the halo/horns effect of bias.”

Top down and bottom-up messaging

The drive towards inclusion comes from the very top at Grant Thornton with the CEO and Senior Leaders taking responsibility for driving progress in one of each of the six inclusion strands -  gender, ethnicity, disability, mental health, LGBTQ+ and social mobility. Within the business, active Conveners promote activity, conversation, education and collaboration across the firm to drive change. Senior leaders also take part in reverse mentoring programmes to not only provide a new perspective, but also to create more open and honest discussions around inclusion and diversity.

Jemma added: “We monitor opportunity, promotions and pay and bonus reviews by each diversity strand, and we ask difficult questions should these statistics show any level of bias or gaps.” 

Inclusion is also encouraged from the bottom-up, with people undertaking training to become Inclusion Allies within the firm; online networks, such as ‘My family and me’, ‘Ethnicity community’ and the ‘Muslim Society’.

The future’s bright

Grant Thornton prides itself on becoming very agile, allowing individuals to use flexibility to suit their role, team, clients and personal circumstances - even prior to COVID-19. All vacancies at Grant Thornton are advertised with the banner ‘happy to talk flexible working’ and hiring managers have to ensure they’ve considered flexibility within their roles.

Jemma explained: “We have seen a real focus on driving diverse talent into our firm, and making every effort to support and retain this talent. The number of female and ethnic minority leaders is still too low, but we have introduced some key measures to improve this and to offer more opportunity.”

Among the programmes on offer are a development programme for female senior managers, with opportunity, coaching, mentoring and sponsorship to drive their careers to the next level; a nearly ready similar programme for people from an ethnic minority, to ensure tools and support are provided to develop them and to support their career progression; and a returners programme which offers six-month contracts to those who have had career breaks to reignite their careers.

Celebrating equality every day

The increased awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd highlighted for Grant Thornton what they already knew - that there is more to do. Jemma said: “We are continually looking for ways to adapt our strategy, improve our thinking and create positive change.”