Jordan Peterson and the Unconscious Bias Debate

The Unconscious Bias Debate

Last month I was asked by Personnel Today to respond to the comments of Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has been active recently in the media in ‘debunking’ the effectiveness of unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) theory and training. (You can read the published article here.)


Unconscious bias training – responding to Jordan Peterson

There is, of course, a large body of academic study on neuroscience and the efficacy of various tests of human behavior, including the EHRC’s recent research report on the efficacy of unconscious bias testing. And then there are those dramatic critics, including Jordan Peterson’s view that unconscious bias tests are ‘an assault on freedom’.

I’m disturbed by the tenor of some of the debates. It distracts from the real challenges of building more inclusive organizations, where leaders know they are doing everything they can to recruit the best, rather than inadvertently cloning themselves, for example.

We read the studies and note the debates, but EW Group are first and foremost practitioners. We roll up our sleeves, working in close collaboration with clients to help them address real problems. This includes breaking down those patterns that get in the way of growth. Or in the way we help ensure that different voices are heard so that companies innovate more successfully, or make sure their diverse customers and other stakeholders get treated equitably (find out more about EW Group’s bespoke unconscious bias training programs).

Sometimes arguing about this test or that is easier than doing the work to address how advantage and disadvantage operates, day in and day out, in ways that can be measured.

Unconscious bias training with practical recommendations and measurable outcomes

After one particular tribunal case, we undertook a forensic analysis of a client’s recruitment and selection processes (see EW Group’s recruitment and selection training). We were working with good, thoughtful people who wanted to have fair and inclusive practices. We found so many ways in which advantage and disadvantage were operating inadvertently. We made practical recommendations, including training those who were involved in the recruitment and selection processes, which the client adopted. And then we measured the impact of the changes over several years. They transformed representation year-on-year.

Nobody was called racist or sexist, and nor should they have been. We worked through the practical things that could be done differently to ensure they recruited the best rather than merely cloning themselves and repeating the patterns.

This approach is so far from the people being ‘marched to re-education by their employer after they have been diagnosed as racist’, as Peterson described recently.

Skepticism isn’t something new. When we started EW Group in 1992, we had to get used to some not-very-subtle eye-rolling at the very idea that senior people should seriously attend to building inclusive cultures and addressing unconscious bias at work. Now we’re very fortunate to work with so many business leaders who really do understand that they simply can’t be excellent without building organizations that have diversity and inclusion woven into their DNA.

So in the face of continued skepticism, EW Group will calmly keep on building the capacity of our clients to build inclusive cultures – we know it makes a difference – as we did 28 years ago.

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