Marshall Matters: a new podcast series from Marshall E-Learning

Marshall Matters Podcast

5th March 2019

Marshall Matters is a new podcast series from Marshall E-Learning that sees its expert guests discuss the latest issues in diversity, equality and inclusion, along with how elearning and training fits into these issues,

In this inaugural Marshall Matter’s podcast from Marshall Elearning, journalist Shahab Mossavat and Vernal Scott, Head of Diversity at Havering Council, have a wide-ranging discussion about current issues and debate about unconscious bias, how relevant it is and how theory impacts on real world scenarios.

Listen to the Marshall Matters Podcast

Episode 1 Show Notes

In this first episode of Marshall Matters, we discuss:

  1. What is Unconscious Bias?
  2. How effective is Unconscious Bias training?
  3. What affect does Unconscious Bias training have on recruitment?
  4. What is “snow capping” and how is it related to Unconscious Bias?
  5. How observable is the claim that institutional bias is connected to provider bias?
  6. The qualitative effect that unconscious bias training can have on people’s lives

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Marshall Matters Episode 1: Unconscious Bias – Transcript

Shaab Mossavat: Hello and welcome to this the first in a series of Marshall Matters podcasts in which we are going to discuss topical training issues facing learners and leaders and delighted to be joined by Vernal Scott, whose career as a policy maker a coach trainer and advocate makes him one of the foremost diversity and inclusion experts working in the public sector today.

It’s really really nice to have you here.

As I’ve said, you’re very much recognised as being an expert in this field and as I’m sure you appreciate unconscious bias training is a hot topic at the moment. It’s got its adherents and increasingly some detractors too.

Before we go into those controversies though could you just start by defining unconscious bias itself and telling me what training is attached to it and where and how it can be applied.

Vernal Scott: What unconscious bias is an acknowledgement if you like of the state of human beings. We all have biases.

I’ve noticed that often when I start my training, I say to training participants “who in the room is biased?”

And often very few people raise their hands, because what they hear is “are you prejudiced?”

So already in the way that I run my sessions, I get people to actually reflect on why they didn’t raise their hands and then I expose the fact that we are all biased.

So that’s a fact, we are naturally biased source of things that we are familiar with, the things that may be like, things that we’ve become accustomed to.

That includes people, the types of people, types of cultures, as well as products certain products people will go for automatically, such as, maybe as an example, an Apple product or a Samsung product.

Just those labels, even if another product that doesn’t have those labels have better features, some people will want to go for this product because of those labels.So they are biased towards those products.

That’s what the training is about. It’s about acknowledging that we are naturally biased as human beings.

But the essence and the purpose of the training is to make people aware that they’re biased and that there’s nothing wrong in being biased. But as an organisation. depending on what what your purpose is, there is a danger in not being aware that you’re biased.

Shahaab: Do you think there’s any utility in a person that’s truly objective?

Vernal: What do you mean?

Shahaab: Well I mean of course we all that view acknowledge, I would acknowledge that everyone has biases, but if we’re working towards let’s say some form of objectivity is that person actually a useful person, if they don’t hold views that or hold views that are less their own and much more towards that objective centre that we’re describing?

Vernal: Well I would argue that as objective as we’d like to think that we are, we’re not. In the mix somewhere are our biases at work.

So my purpose in facilitating training is to get people to be aware of their biases and the fact that you can’t there’s nothing wrong in having them, but be aware of them so that they don’t corrupt the recruitment process, as an example, when it comes to promoting people.

When it comes concerns allocation and work to make sure that the focus is on ability and talent rather than perceptions of ability.

Actual ability and talent is what you get when you’re appropriately focused and when you are aware of your biases kicking in.

A good example might be, for example, some people when they see somebody who’s a wheelchair user, instead of seeing the person’s ability potentially on their talent, they see inability.

Some people are triggered therefore by disability in a negative way and their biases kick in thinking, “oh I’m sure a non-disabled person would do a better job”.

Obviously that’s not the case and the same thing happens when it concerns gender, when it concerns age, when it concerns race, sexuality etc, etc. Biases kick in.

We owe it to ourselves as leaders in organisations to understand how they work and how they a rob, actually steal talent from an organization if we don’t manage our biases effectively.

How can unconscious bias training change people’s perceptions?

Shahaab: We’ll come back to that a little bit later on. I certainly would like to explore that in greater detail with you, but for the time being I just want to turn to the work you’ve been doing here in Havering. Now you’ve been here for just under two years and would you say it’s as much your job to to allay other people’s unconscious biases towards what Havering as a corporate entity represents?

I mean people outside Havering as it is to train the people within Havering to recognise their own unconscious biases. I came to one of your training exercise if you remember and I think that common perception is that this is an area where there are a lot of prejudices, racial and other stereotypical prejudices.

So how much of your work is focused on trying to retrain people outside of Havering about their perceptions of Havering?

Vernal: Well I would argue that and I have to confess the enjoining Havering, I had perceptions and biases about Havering versus other boroughs, versus say the the Brent’s or the Hackney’s or the Westminster’s.

The perception I had was that it was going to be much further to the right politically, that as a black person myself that I might experience negativity here and the truth is is that wherever you go biases are at work.

What’s really, really, really exciting about working at Havering is that it’s a borough that’s on a incremental journey of improvements around equality issues and the concentration in my sessions on unconscious bias, I think has it already enabled this organisation to think differently about how we recruit, how we manage and how we see our colleagues and most of all our service users.

I was really heartened last week when we put on an event an acknowledgement of International Day of the Disabled Person and one of our speakers is was the Chief Executive of Havering Council. His name is Andrew Blake Herbert and one of his slides was just about unconscious bias in respect of disability.

The essence of what he was saying was that he wants to attract and retain the best possible talent in his organisation and that disabled people are equally as talented as non-disabled people and that he didn’t want any disabled candidate to feel that they would stand less of a chance of getting a job at Havering.

He was quite clear that it wasn’t just about getting numbers of disabled people into this organisation, but it was what grades are they going to be when they’re in the organisation, because on paper it’s very easy for an organisation to look good based on race or gender or sexuality, but what we need to do is look below the surface which is what he’s courageously wanting to do, to say well I want to see disabled people of all grades in this organisation, in all the different jobs.

So that’s one of the messages from the Chief Executive and the audience was largely made up of disabled people, so soon others than myself, there are other leaders in the organisation, the chief executive down, who are aware of the value of unconscious bias training and the need for anybody who manages people to be appropriately trained.


How effective is unconscious bias training?

Shahaab: Now as I said in the introduction, there are people out there who are let’s say detractors when it comes to unconscious bias training. And some of them say that it’s faddish and ineffective

How much of a case do you think they have? Do they have any case? Or is it are they over blowing it, or are they under playing its efficacy?

Vernal: it’s my view, my considered view based upon work different councils, different public sector organisations, and also as a consultant go to different organisations both in the public sector and the private sector, that unconscious bias training and awareness is crucial.

If an organisation is serious about inclusion, then a gateway to enabling that is unconscious bias training.

It isn’t an accident that if you look at the profile of some organisations that as an example, in looking at race, that some of them are “snow capped” as we call it, where all the leaders in those organiaations – even where well some of these organisations are and ethnic large ethnic minority areas – you’ll find that the top tiers are white Caucasian.

That isn’t an accident. That is because biases are at work.

I find it hard to believe that ethnic minority people just don’t have the talent to get to know to those levels. There’s something else happening and I think that’s something else that’s negative is unconscious bias.

I do understand that the diversity and inequality field, some people are getting a bit weary, people are getting a bit tired, and they’re starting to close down on issues such as unconscious bias training.

I would argue vehemently that they look at why they’re getting tired. Maybe they need to move on as individuals, but the topic and the value that it brings isn’t something that itself is tired. It’s very topical for good reason.

I did a training here, I do training all the time here and and only yesterday looking at the evaluations of the training session, that idea which includes unconscious bias, the feedback was quite clear: people were enthused, enlightened they were “wow, I didn’t realise that I had these biases. Well and now I know I’ve got them, I’m aware that it’s okay to have them, but I’m now aware of what triggers them and what I need to do to overcome them being triggered in a way that’s negative for the workplace.”

That kind of feedback is common. The ratings from yesterday’s session – people can rate it excellent or good or so-so or worse – and certainly at least 98% of the participants, and there were nearly 30 people in the room, was positive.

Shahaab: So you have a future as totalitarian dictator a head of you?

Vernal: Well, depends on who you talk to, people might say I am already.

Shahaab: Joking aside, I detect that a lot of the problems that unconscious bias brand-wise faces, is unconscious bias training is recognised emanates from the fact that there isn’t a buy-in from the very top, from the highest echelon, especially in the corporate sector.

That whilst its prescribed for let’s say the the mass of the employees, the executives themselves don’t feel that it applies to them.

Do agree with that observation?

Vernal: Havering then might be an exception, because as I explained our chief exec that’s only last week talking about unconscious bias in the context of disability.

I think an effective leader today somebody who really wants to be inclusive of available talent will find value in unconscious bias training.

How can leaders help support unconscious bias training and awareness?

Shahaab: I was thinking specifically of the corporate sector and more specifically than that I was thinking about the Starbucks example in Philadelphia, where it appeared that 8,000 staff are basically being told you’re going to have training in unconscious bias and then it had been rolled out without actually there being any target.

So therefore my main my real question to you is, if leadership doesn’t inform a specific target, a specific desire, a specific design, if it itself doesn’t identify a need then how can those that work in the levels below subscribe to that training?

Vernal: Well you know leadership is a skill. Some people are naturally good leaders, some people have to learn and start off unfortunately learning the hard way.

But I think any organisation will find that different people will respond differently unconscious bias as a matter of value to be rolled out or not.

As well as unconscious bias, this organisation that I work for is looking at inclusive leadership and inclusive management as separate mandatory training. And one of the components of inclusive leadership and management training is unconscious bias.

So whether it be the training the generic mandatory bread-and-butter equality diversity training that I do or well next year will be the inclusive management training, unconscious bias is a thread that we believe offers much value.

And answering your question in regarding in the corporate sector, I think that increasingly people are looking at quick wins. People get tired of certain what they call “fads” in not just equality training, but in other elements of corporate training as well.

And I would ask the leaders in the corporate world to have a look at themselves and ask themselves why is it that they’re getting tired of these topics?

Is it that they think that it’s slowing down the profit margin or reducing the profit margin? Or is it that they’re still getting complaints from customers or staff?

I would I would be very happy to sit in the room with other leaders and challenge them around the value of unconscious bias training.

At the moment I can’t see any alternative to it. I don’t think there should be an alternative to it, where recruitment panels in the corporate sector, public sector et cetera, are making decisions about who to fire, who to recruit, who to promote, demote, etc.

We’ve got to understand that the human condition is such that unconscious bias is at work all the time and we would talk to the organisation’s if we’re really keen on making attracting the best possible talent but also increasing that profit margin, we will want to make sure that everybody is included as a customer and in the talent pool that we recruit and unconscious bias training in my experience is the way to enabling that to happen.

Shahaab: From listening to you, what I get is that the public sector just does this better than the commercial sector, that’s just what I take away from your comments.

But is that perhaps to do with accountability? The fact that in the public sector you’re expending public money, whereas in the corporate the profit margin is probably the most instructive thing?

How much of an effect do you think that might have?

Vernal: Well if we look at as I say the most successful companies out there in the private corporate world, they are the most diverse.

The ones who are making the most profit are the most diverse.

They have got unconscious bias pinned down.

Shahaab: Do you have some examples?

Vernal: Apple is a good example, Microsoft is another example, and I’m sure that colleagues at Marshall will be able to give you other examples of UK-based companies who are also advocates of unconscious bias training and who can articulate the benefit.

I’m totally clear that where it concerns offering competent, so it’s not even just one that’s profitable, but a competent service will be a service that’s aware of where it could be doing better and unconscious bias training is one of those tools to enable us to be more effective in providing more appropriate customer-focused services, but also at looking at where the problems might be because whilst I’ve spoken so far about developing training to try and be as inclusive as possible to attract the best possible talent and to make sure that our services are appropriate, if we’re honest as well we might already have recruited the problem.

If we’re if we’re honest, we might look at the people that we’ve recruited in the past that we’re where we recruited them at a time where we were not aware of our biases, so we just perhaps recruited people who look exactly like ourselves and maybe those people who are really working in our organisations are some as far as profitable as we’d like them to be, maybe they’re the problem.

So we might need to look into and have a fresh look the talent that we already have and see whether, if we apply unconscious bias principles, whether those people would still be recruited today.

Is institutional bias connected to provider bias?

Shahaab: Now looking at it from the public sector perspective, how observable is the claim that institutional bias is connected to provider bias?

How would you change that phenomenon on a wider level going beyond the public sector?

So let me give you an example here. Let’s say schools. It almost seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy that a child that comes from more deprived area will get less resources at school and will therefore have worse outcomes. And the expectation is that that will be so, so just tell me about that sort of self-fulfilling aspects of what you’ve seen and how how we can reverse that trend.

Vernal: It’s an excellent question.

I think it’s really crucial where we are in the journey on equality diversity in the United Kingdom, that we look beyond the bread and butter of equality and diversity and that we begin to compare actual life outcomes for different people.

For example, we at Havering want to ensure that the experience or attainment level of a disabled child and a non-disabled child, that the gap is narrowed.

So we’re comparing in perspective that similarly further or in respect of children, say for example, a child who’s in care or about to leave care versus a child who has been going home to his or her parents and supported in a traditional family unit, we would want to compare life outcomes.

Are the attainment level the same? If not, why not? What kind of interventions can we make? How do we measure over time the outcomes in respect of the kind of post-schooling life chances? What kind of job will different people get?

And you’re quite right that geography matters and money matters – the import of resources into the welfare and the well-being of a child or adult will help to determine life outcomes. There’s no two ways about it.

How connected is entitlement culture to unconscious bias?

Shahhab: And therefore how connected would you say entitlement culture is to unconscious bias?

Vernal: Well unfortunately where resources are our concern, they are increasingly scarce and I think that it would take a political agenda or leadership to change the allocation of resources or to ensure that equality isn’t just rhetoric. It’s got to be backed up.

If we know for example that schools in the Kensington’s of the country are better resourced, that they look better, that the quality of teaching is higher than a school saying in in a Tottenham or another borough that doesn’t have as much resources, we’ve got to try and narrow those gaps.

And I would suggest that people who are best place to do that are people who allocate those resources, so say the government.

But also at at a local level, I would also argue that sometimes because we don’t have the resources, it doesn’t mean that we can’t do our best.

Shahaab: But which in your experience leads which? Is it the political that leads society or is it society that instructs the political will?

Vernal: It’s a bit of both because the the people who pick up the political demands, whatever their political colors, come from the community.

But these political leaders will have their own biases as well that’s why you have different political parties because they will have different policies that reflect what they think should be the outcome and deliverables in the community.

What doesn’t change is the fact that we’ve got service users, that we have people who need jobs, that we have people who need, young people who need education, people who need care etc, so those components will always be there.

How we respond to them can be dictated by our politics.

If I think for example that instead instead of spending more money on improving my local schools that I might say put it towards policing or put it towards the roads or something else, another person who’s a political might do it another way around.

What will remain in place are those demands from different communities and I think therefore to try and get the best effect is, partly what would as an example what we were doing last week with our disabled communities, is that we got them into a building and said tell us what your needs are.

We don’t want to make assumptions, tell us how we can do better for you.

And I think any effective leader be the political or organizational or otherwise will do better if she or he listens to the people that they’re serving and that what we do on their behalf is transparent, so that we can say “well this is what you said that you need to do, this is what we were able to achieve so far, this is what we is still outstanding. Given the resources that we’ve got how would you best want us to prioritize?”

That to me would be the best approach but the reality is is that there isn’t a bottomless pit of money without upping council tax, without upping other taxes.

So we’ve got to do the best that we can with the resources that we have, but listening to people and trying our best to meet their needs in a transparent way is I think bread-and-butter organisational competence.

How does unconscious bias training change people’s actions?

Shahaab: Now in those comments I feel you’ve described the qualitative effect that unconscious bias training can have on people’s lives. We’ve talked about some outcomes there.

In your experience how does unconscious bias training change people’s actions?

Vernal: Well hopefully the purpose is that we do want them to be aware when their biases kick in.

So for example, if an action on the part of people recruiting is to recruit the best possible talent, I would expect the outcome to be just that – the best person was indeed appointed to a vacancy because the panel has been trained in unconscious bias and that they knew that, for example, somebody who wheeled themselves into the room in a wheelchair that they didn’t see inability. They may have seen the disability but that doesn’t mean inability.

Therefore any bias that you would have before the training that would have triggered you, you’d be aware of that and therefore your focus will be on the talent and then you would do that with all the various equality categories.

So it’s important, you’re quite right to say well what difference does it make.

So recruitment should make a difference to the user, the service user experience should be different, because stereotyping for example, if I if people are going to be stereotyping vert people with from different cultures, people who look the certain way, people whose sexuality might be different from mine etc, that you know it gets you to be aware that your biases and your stereotypes are kicking in.

And that in fact this this day is brand new it has never happened before the person who you’re about to say hello to you’ve never met before you really haven’t met before, they may look like somebody else there they might come from a culture that you think believe in or behave in a certain way.

But the truth is you don’t know until you say hello, this is who I am, who are you, what are you doing, what is it that you want – that’s how we find out the truth, by having the courage to let go of what we think we know and embrace these wonderful three words: “I don’t know”.

Okay, I don’t know until I know. So it’s almost as if we need to both in an organisation but also personally, if we don’t overcome the biases that we have it robs us of the opportunity to meet wonderful people who we would never meet if we stay within the prism of the biased mind where all we can hear and see is a recording of the past events and people who look like that, people who sound like that, people with that accent, people who are that tall or whatever, and to say to yourself well I’m going to knowledge that there’s a clean slate today and I’m not going to drag my yesterday into and pollute this fresh new day with a brand new experience, I’m going to experience people as they are, experience and any opportunity to travel to apply for jobs etc.

And my point about how much is robbed from us, the chief executive of this in this organization when he saw the vacancy said to himself I’m going to apply for that job because I believe that I’ve got the talent and the ability to be the chief executive of Havering Council.

Somebody else who’s equally as talented, if they’re not careful their biases would kick in and say, oh that looks like a really picture but no I can’t do that. People that me you know don’t get jobs like that and before you know it you talk yourself out of your opportunities/

So there’s there really is a corrosive effect that is beyond an organisation that limits our potential in the world so whether it be organisational or on a personal level, unconscious bias learning and training and awareness is an enormous value for people who really, really want to experience the world and what the world offers.

If we look at UK culture and we look at what the most popular dishes are in this country, curry!

And if we just stuck to fish and chips, Sunday roast, people would never have discovered that oh gosh, oh this tastes great.

Bow the same thing goes with talent and people who are different from ourselves there’s a lot to discover and there’s a lot to use when we it ourselves based upon what we think you know or what happened yesterday in events and people and whatever else.

This is a new day, embrace it as such and allow unconscious bias training to be part of enabling your freedom to experience.

How can companies sustain the impact of unconscious bias training?

Shahaab: You’ve spoken about the brand new day, the brand new opportunity that unconscious bias training offers the person who’s trained and I think that really illustrates it very well as a metaphor.

But how can institutions and commercial companies hope to sustain the impact of unconscious bias training over the long term?

How can you have many new days going forward, rather than having that that in a discreet new day in that particular timeframe and then beyond it, it slips away. How do you guard against that?

Vernal: Refreshers. It’s not an accident that our training is every three years the lead.

In between the three year sessions, leadership to remind people. If I’m a leader in an organisational and I’m giving a speech somewhere, I will share with people the values of the organisation that I work for.

So I would be talking about the value of unconscious bias at just every opportunity, so it won’t be three years there’s probably going to be at least two or three times a month and that’s what I would ask of anybody in any leadership position, that they keep those values to the fore it concerns me that some people might be losing interest in unconscious bias training or any other kind of training involving inclusion of people who are currently excluded

That’s a reflection on the leadership really of those organisations. They perhaps need to be inspired by remembering or putting themselves even the shoes of the people who are currently excluded.

I think if you’re able to put yourself in the shoes of other people around you in your role, how you are excluding people and what you can do to turn that around.

I have absolutely no doubt that a modern forward-thinking organisation will have equality training as mandatory concern that the relative outcomes of that would be monitored that they will be looking at trends of people who are joining their organizations and who’s believing and ask themselves well why that’s happening, be positive that people are joining or people leaving, ask themselves about that.

Keep the training active to keep the reason why the training is happening isn’t just about the letters of command or demands on us.

Hover here we’ve got the Equality Act 2010. There is the legal requirement and the consequences of course of unlimited fines if you get it wrong.

But morally it’s the right thing to do to be decent and to be inclusive of people who are different from ourselves but who offer talent that unconscious without unconscious bias training mean those people are going to continue to be excluded.

The business case as I say we want to attract and retain the best possible talent, that’s what this organisation of the people that we serve deserve, the best possible talent and I’m convinced that some of that talent is going to be women, it’s going to be disabled people, it’s going to be black people, it’s going to be white people, it’s going to be heterosexual people, it’s going to be all kinds of people.

Once I’ve got my unconscious bias training hat on, I know that you know I’m going to be letting talent.

And then finally there’s the equal life chances case where I had mentioned earlier about comparing different outcomes for different people.

I want and we want here for disabled people to have the same sense of freedom as non-disabled people. We want to take responsibility for removing the barriers that inhibit the freedom of disabled people to aspire and to achieve their full potential.

That’s disability. If we look at sexuality, if a heterosexual man and woman are holding hands walking through the town centre, if the same sex couple be it to women or two men were doing the same thing, I would like for the reaction you know to be similar – that people won’t bat an eyelid and that they’d be equally as welcomed.

Those are the kind of life outcomes that we’ve got to be aiming for. It’s very easy for people like me to sit at computers and write policies, that’s what I do.

But what really matters is the life experience of real people big people who want looking for work, or for Joe and Joan public who are trying to live their lives for people to say actually I can be myself, I can achieve my full potential and this organisation, this local authority is enabling me.

We’re working for example with hate crime, we’re working with the police to make sure that we’re working together to combat that. Anti-semitism, we’re looking at that and trying to make sure that that’s addressed.

So it’s the suits it’s the legal case the moral case the business case of the equal life chances case those components must be looked at.

But the one that matters most is the moral case but also the equal life chances case.

What’s the actual life experience of people who look and live like you, people who look like me etc etc, how are we comparing them?

Another example of that is the Grenfell fire last year, where you have people in poorer say so economic circumstances living next door to people in in wealthier economic circumstances, but the health and safety outcomes were very, very different.

So it’s true that you know one of them was a high-rise block and there’s going to be limitations in what you can do in respect of health and safety, but the principle shouldn’t be any different.

The fact that you’re going to actually to advise the fire marshal or the person who’s given permission for a building like that to exist in the first place, I mean saying well what are the things that I need to do to make sure that people are you living in that block don’t experience any disadvantage with health and safety compared to the person who’s living in a two-story building next door.

Those are the kind of comparators that we must ask ourselves in the public sector and I would argue in the private sector too.

Shahaab: Clearly a lot lot more to talk about. Sadly we’ve run out of time.

I’d like to thank you very very much, Vernal Scott for appearing on this Marshall Matters podcast.

I hope you listening have found the contents useful.

As I said clearly there’s a lot more to discuss and I’m sure that you have comments and questions too. And if you do then please do write to us at the link below.

This has been a Christie / Mossavat joint production. Ian Christie producing.

I’m Shahaab Mossavat, thanking you for listening and I’m sure you will join me again next time. Thank you.


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