Getting Under the Skin of Bias

By Rob Neil OBE, Director at Krystal Alliance

Following the publication of the Civil Services first Diversity & Inclusion Strategy in October 2017, many civil servants embarked on a journey in awareness training. Indeed, for some this culminated in an innovative series of activities as part of the 2020 Year of Inclusion. Some folk are now doing more than ever before to understand, challenge and positively transform, their own personal biases i.e. both conscious and unconscious bias.


It is accepted that unconscious bias has played a significant part in the current shape and composition of the UK Civil Service. Indeed, in the case of racial inequality, we only have to look at www.thecolourofpower.com to appreciate evidence of ethnic bias.


Recent events such as George Floyd’s public killing and the enforced lockdown via COVID19 pandemic, have combined to encourage, if not enforce, a deeper exploration into new ways of working. Many leaders are tasked with designing a ‘new normal’.


This injunction has ushered in some innovative practices, like;


  • Increase of name blind recruitment to avoid inherent bias in recruitment
  • Abandoning of three-box (tiered) appraisal systems which persistently produced disproportionate outcomes for minority staff; and
  • Introduction of strength based interviewing as a more accurate way of identifying potential.


These relatively recent interventions are simply some of the signals that there is a tangible quest by those leading the UK’s Civil Service to become the UK’s most inclusive employer by the end of 2020. Mmmmm, time (and actions) will tell.


There is further evidence following recent exercises in sharing the experiences of Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff, that we have much to learn and work through as we discover the depth of persistent racial biases and subsequent disparities for different cultural groups.


In her illuminating book ‘White Fragility’, Robin DiAngelo explains it this way:


“Inequity can occur simply through homogeneity; if I’m not aware of the barriers you face, then I won’t see them, much less be motivated to remove them.”


I believe that the Civil Service is now at an exciting and critical crossroads on its journey in becoming a brilliant Civil Service. If the civil service is going to move this work forward and take a deeper look at the relevant issues, it will have to engage with more (not less) of the uncomfortable conversations about when and where bias occurs. Drawing closer to those adversely impacted i.e. who feels it, knows it.


Organizations need to be brave and bold if they are to truly face the challenge of transforming the way things are done, including support for senior leaders to be more authentic and culturally intelligent in their exchanges with others that are different to themself.


During my own 37yr career as a civil servant, I facilitated countless training events for a diverse range of audiences. These have included pioneering ‘Let’s Talk about Race’ workshops for colleagues which began back in 2015. Numerous face: ‘Unconscious Bias’ sessions for teams as part of AwayDays and cross-sector conferences where drivers of change can be very different. On most occasions, these activities are well received, typically attended by people committed to change and, sometimes, responsible for driving the change. These are, for the majority of the time, positive events. However, I have occasionally observed some people exhibiting a self-gratifying positivity, based purely it would seem on them turning up. They have ticked a box when the register was called and throughout their time in class cling tightly to their cloak of denial, with comments like;


  • Well!!! I’m not so bad after all, everyone has biases
  • It’s been my amygdala – system one thinking – all along


The danger with this lazy response is the squandered opportunity for meaningful change. I’m not suggesting we shame/blame people into a guilt trip. I am saying that we must be willing to collectively listen and personally hear (listening and hearing are not the same) each other’s uncomfortable truths.


We can all develop our ability to exercise empathy and each of us can sign-up to practicable actions.




We need to get under the skin of bias and to do that we must be prepared to feel the fear and, yep, do it anyway. We must embark on a brave and active journey in learning and, ultimately, growth. That learning will bring some level of discomfort, but it is a journey that I have discovered is full of others ready, willing and able to encourage, support and inspire each other.




We need to dismantle traditional ways of working which are all too often rooted in nepotistic practices and exclusive rigid conventions. We need to give right of way to innovative committed to creating a workplace which promotes; safety, openness, trust and prepares individuals for their participation in healthy challenge of the status quo. If we can create that form of inclusive environment our reward will be a transformative change of culture where diversity will thrive, instinctively and the benefits e.g. less sick absence, reduced presenteeism, and increased levels of employee engagement, abound.

Krystal Alliance