SME’s Can’t Afford Unconscious Bias

By Adrian Harvey

I had the pleasure this week of working with a leading light in a specialist sub field of D&I namely, unconscious bias.

I was genuinely surprised at the scale of the issue among large U.K. firms and how hard some of the more enlightened Execs found it to genuinely attempt to solve the issue. Moreover, the cynic in me was not surprised to see how others were simply glossing over the problem.

Two things struck me:

  1. Throwing a one-time training intervention at the problem was (politely) “unlikely to have any material impact whatsoever on your culture of promoting those in your image!” Less politely, shame on you leaders who treat unconscious bias as a “compliance issue” and see forced single training interventions as a means to tick a box. UB is not so much a compliance issue as it is a bottom line performance brake on every business.  The idea that the best talent always comes in the same gender, race and ethnicity as the existing exec is obviously ridiculous.
  1. Curiously UB is in my humble opinion far less prevalent in successful SME’s than giant corporations. Most SME’s are OWNED by the board. Here I see a far more representative sample of the diverse culture that is modern UK. It strikes me that this is because successful SME’s can’t afford UB. The deck is already stacked against small business in the UK and selecting and promoting management based on anything other than merit is a sure fire way to compound the issue!

Looking at our own small 15-person business I see as diverse a population as you could imagine. 50% of our management team are women. Nationality wise we have Lithuanian, Irish, Romanian, Turkish & English nationals. Because these are the best people for the job – simple as that. When we are hiring we recruit for excellence in role and when we are promoting we promote from within, provided, and only if, the internal candidate represents the most likely to deliver optimal performance.

Part of me says carry on corporates as the SME’s are benefiting from the non pale, male & stale talent that apparently many of you are casting off. But if you are genuinely serious about addressing the issue of UB in your organisation and if the bias really is unconscious then the only way to deal with it is to condition leadership and management over time to be conscious of their bias,  and no single training intervention alone will do that.

Whether they then continue to recruit and promote in their own image is an entirely different issue.