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Unconscious bias training has its place, but it isn’t a silver bullet that will solve the challenges of diversity in our organisations. BY DAWN LEANE We humans can be an irrational bunch. On one hand we know that we shouldn’t smoke, we should exercise more, eat less sugar and start a pension when we’re young. Yet while we know that our behaviour is self-sabotaging, we still do all the wrong things. And therein lies the challenge for unconscious bias training – while it makes sense at a logical level, its potential to impact behaviours and attitudes is limiting. Bias defined Bias is a tendency, inclination or prejudice towards or against something or someone. We all have them; they’re the product of our life experiences and hark back to a time when such bias was imperative for survival. Our brains are primed to make split second decisions that draw on a variety of assumptions and experiences. The problem is that when those assumptions are based on both positive and negative stereotypes, they lead to poor and often discriminatory decision-making. Without the right context, training may only serve to make people compliant. It can even breed resentment and cause more problems than it solves. This is especially true when such training is mandated for employees, as if the responsibility to remedy the situation is theirs, while fundamental flaws in the culture or systems of an organisation go unchallenged. So, how does an organisation create the right climate for effective unconscious bias training? Creating the right climate Negative stereotypes arise from ignorance or anxiety about failing to understand our differences. The best way to challenge such stereotypes is therefore direct exposure to the subject of our preconceptions. In practical terms, that can mean actively hiring or promoting more diverse candidates. Research shows that when we can re-categorise others according to shared features or characteristics, we are more likely to see them as part of our tribe and less likely to experience prejudicial thoughts. Neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to reorganise itself throughout our life based on our experiences – suggests that the way we categorise others is more malleable than we imagine. With the right stimulus, i.e. getting to know people as real people rather than part of an ethnic, age or gender group, we can effectively rewire our brain. Research from MIT suggests that organisations with meritocratic values are often the worst offenders when it comes to bias, specifically as it relates to gender; favouring men over women who perform equally, particularly in terms of bonus or career opportunities. Conversely, organisations that value individual autonomy showed no such difference, leading researchers to conclude that merit-based pay practices, in particular, may fail to achieve race-neutral or gender-neutral outcomes. Ironically, it appears as though managers who work for meritocratic organisations believe that they are more impartial and unconsciously act on their biases. While it is very difficult to entirely eliminate bias, we can make it easier for our biased minds to make fair decisions. The best approach is to limit the trigger opportunities for bias by engineering it out of our systems and processes. Most people have heard of the blind orchestra auditions in which candidates auditioned behind a screen. Even when the screen was only used for the preliminary round, it had a powerful impact – researchers have determined that this step alone made it 50% more likely that a woman would advance to the finals. Unconscious bias training has its place, but it isn’t a silver bullet that will solve the challenges of diversity in our organisations. It’s far more successful in environments where diversity exists, highlighting our tendency to stereotype rather than making us more open to embracing diversity. Dawn Leane is Principal Consultant at LeaneLeaders.

Jul 09, 2018
Press release

Chartered Accountants Ireland / KBC Bank Ireland business sentiment survey, Q3 2018 Business sentiment slips in Summer ’18 on increased uncertainty Firms report further increases in output and employment in past three months Four times as many companies seeing headcount rise as fall Irish Business sees one in three chance that UK crashes out of EU without transition deal Key Brexit fears are UK market access and increased customs/regulatory burden Likely impact of Brexit on Irish business becoming less rather than more clear Business sees housing/health and ‘overheating' as priorities for Budget 2019 Irish business sentiment has weakened marginally of late as increased uncertainty about the outlook for the global economy weighs on firms’ expectations for their own activity levels in coming quarters as well as their assessment of prospects for the Irish economy as a whole. The pull back in sentiment is largely due to increased caution about the future as the summer survey found companies have continued to report stronger output and hiring in the past three months. The KBC Bank/Chartered Accountants Ireland business sentiment index slipped to 114.2 in summer 2018 from 116.4 in the spring quarter. The latest reading is the weakest since that of spring 2017.However, It should be noted that these responses signal continuing if more guarded confidence about the future as there were still notably more positive than negative responses to questions about the outlook for business and the broader Irish economy even if the gap between the two narrowed marginally since the spring survey. The survey asked a number of questions on Brexit; Only 7% of companies felt that the impact of Brexit on their companies had become clearer of late while a Significant 17% felt it had become less clear. Irish based businesses think there is a one in three chance that the UK could leave the EU as early as March 2019 without the ‘safety net’ of a transition period. This implies that the possibility of a ‘crash exit’ by the UK is regarded as a material risk by Irish business even if it is not these companies’ central scenario. Irish firms would expect very broadly based negative effects on their activity levels in the event of a ‘crash exit‘ from the EU by the UK. Some 48% of companies envisage a worsening of the business outlook while just 4% would anticipate an improvement in their prospects Irish based businesses were asked to indicate the principal channel through which the UK’s exit from the EU would affect their companies’ activity levels. Two concerns dominate: market access and an increased documentation/regulatory burden. On what should be the priority for Budget 2019, Irish business is split with equal numbers emphasising spending on social infrastructure (health and housing) and avoiding overheating in the Irish economy. The need to address serious ‘structural’ shortcomings in areas such as health and housing while reducing ‘cyclical’ concerns around a return to a ‘boom and bust’ path for the Irish economy could make for a challenging fiscal package Commenting on the survey results, Mr Barry Dempsey, Chief Executive at Chartered Accountants Ireland noted, ‘It is not surprising that increased uncertainty of late has made Irish business more cautious. However, the survey finds that Irish based companies are reporting that their levels of output and employment remain on a very solid growth path.’  Mr Austin Hughes, Chief economist at KBC Bank Ireland who prepared the survey noted, ’While the number of companies reporting job gains in the past three months is four times the number of companies reporting job losses, it is clear that confidence is being affected by a range of threats running from Brexit and trade tensions internationally to domestic concerns such as housing and overheating risks.’ Mr Hughes added, ‘although there has been a great deal more heat about Brexit recently, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal more light  as only 7% of companies say the consequences for their business operations have become clearer of late while 17% say they have gotten less clear. This may be due to the possibility of a ‘crash exit’ from the EU by the UK which is seen as a one in three possibility by companies, suggesting it is seen as a real risk even if it isn’t their central scenario.’      Mr Dempsey noted, ‘Companies see a range of threats to their activities from Brexit at present but two concerns appear to dominate. These are potential constraints to their access to the UK market and the prospect of notable increases in customs documentation and regulatory requirements. So companies appear worried about both ‘red ink’ and ‘red tape’ impacts on their operations from Brexit.’  Mr Dempsey added ‘It’s clear therefore that Irish business needs to prepare for the consequences of a ‘hard Brexit’ and our new guide “Taking the Lead - Chartered Accountants and Brexit” produced in association with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, will help both Irish and UK businesses prepare for customs checks and controls that they could face after Brexit.’  The survey was in the field from 9th - 16th July 2018, and had 205 responses. The full report on the Q3 Business Sentiment results are available here. 

Jul 19, 2018

Institute President Feargal McCormack received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science (DSc) for his civic contributions.   Feargal was born in Warrenpoint and since 2009 has been a Visiting Professor at Ulster University Business School. In this role, he has made a highly significant contribution to the development of the School, through fostering links with leading  business figures.  As well as his capacity as Institute President Feargal holds many roles with major sporting and charity organisations including Special Olympics Ireland, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and InterTrade Ireland.   As the founder and Managing Director of the leading private professional accountancy practice PKF-FPM, Feargal is recognised nationally as a leading figure in the field of professional accounting. He is also a widely recognised and respected business mentor and advisor.   In 2012 Feargal received the prestigious All-Ireland Award from the Institute of Management Consultants in recognition of his “significant contribution to business and public life in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the last 20 years”. Other recipients of this award have included Dr Martin Naughton and former Irish President, Mary McAleese.   Dr Feargal McCormack commented, “It is a great honour to receive this honorary degree from Ulster University in recognition of my civic contributions. I am proud to be a visiting professor at the business school and it means a great deal to me to be among such revered honorary graduates as well as such a promising group of students. I wish them the best in their futures wherever their paths may lead.” Ends About Chartered Accountants Ireland Chartered Accountants Ireland is the largest, longest established and fastest growing professional accountancy body in Ireland with over 26,500 members in 93 countries around the globe.   Reference:      Brendan O’Hora, Director of Communications and Marketing E:                    brendan.ohora@charteredaccountants.ie M:                   00353 86 2432428  About Ulster University Ranked in the top 2 per cent of universities worldwide, Ulster University is one of the top 150 global young universities under 50. Ulster University is a modern, forward-looking institution with student experience at the very heart of everything we do. Our high quality teaching, informed by world-leading research across key sectors, boosts the economy and has a positive impact on the lives of people around the world. Reference:      Lee Campbell, Ulster University, Communications Team E:                    l.campbell5@ulster.ac.uk   T:                     028 90366178/ 07714613757 

Jul 06, 2018