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How is WRS Addressing Unconscious Bias in Decision Making?

Posted by: Sharon Dunleavy

It’s true we all have our own biases, even though we may not be aware of them or want to admit to them. Many of us have grown so accustomed to thinking in a certain way, through the social and cultural conditioning we have experienced, we don't even consider the bias that exists when making everyday decisions. Therefore, we call this process unconscious bias. At WRS, we know tackling unconscious bias head on is vital to our success as a diverse and inclusive business and have provided training for all our employees on this exact topic giving them the tools they need to identify unconscious bias and make decisions based purely on the criteria required for that particular scenario.

In this blog we discuss the key points and check in with our Senior Management team to get their opinions on the impact of unconscious bias and the importance of managing it.

How aware are you of your own bias?

Matt Spells, Maritime Divisional Manager: “I’ve seen instances where bias can be really problematic when managing employees, and I know that sometimes managers aren’t aware they are being biased, it’s so ingrained. Seeing this has helped me analyse my own bias. Recognising your own unconscious biases in decisions is key and one way to do this is to write down what factors you're using when making your decisions. This helps you to recognise your unconscious values and the motivations for the decisions you are making and when comparing to others will highlight your unconscious bias”.

As a manager, setting objective standards for self-evaluation can mitigate situations where biases can be the most detrimental, for example excusing behaviours in one employee and not another.

Do you have objective standards?

Mark Brown, CEO: “We have already, and are continuing to, implement objective criteria around promotions, pay increases and progression within our business. Transparency is key and this has the added benefit of motivating team members”.

Education and awareness are critical to battling unconscious bias. Both help in exposing people to new thinking, new perspectives, and help people recognise the true power and impact of diversity.

How is WRS educating and building awareness?

Emma Upton, HR Business Partner: “Put quite simply, through opening up the conversation about bias. I want to create a safe forum for people to be able to say, “I don’t feel I’m being objective here,” or, “I’m aware that there is some bias in my thought process around this topic,” rather than feel unable to share the truth, which is that bias exists and it can have a negative impact on decision making. It’s when something is not talked about that it becomes a problem that we feel we can’t overcome, or something to be ashamed of. So, initially, it began with training for the whole company on what unconscious bias is and how we can tackle it. Education starts with each individual being able to identify the existence of bias in themselves. We have regular communications during which we discuss what other companies, our clients, are doing to tackle bias and create an inclusive workforce. We have put all of these topics – bias, inclusion, diversity, belonging, equality – front and centre on our business agenda for 2021 and continue to raise awareness of the issues that still exist and the things we can do to make positive changes in the business community”.

Developing a working relationship with a counterpart who comes from a different background to you can help reduce unconscious bias. Without a good mix of diverse backgrounds in decision making roles it can run rampant in the workplace.

Does WRS give you the confidence to challenge traditions?

Pippa Glendining, Acting FD: “I have always felt that every team member at WRS, especially the SMT, have the autonomy to make decisions and take the lead in the progression of our company. Part of that is being able to challenge the norm. Just because it’s always been done in a certain way doesn’t mean that’s the only way or the right way. I feel empowered to challenge tradition and enact change where it’s needed at WRS”.

Confirmation bias can lead us to make decisions without listening to another point of view. It’s important to remind ourselves that there could be more than one correct answer to the question depending on the particular viewpoint. Diverse management, including different backgrounds ensures ideas are evaluated from unique, individual perspectives.

Do you look for alternative points of view when making important decisions?

Francis Dunleavy, Operations Director, Singapore: “Alternative points of view from individuals with their own experiences and influences is fundamental to reaching a sound, objective decision. It’s no longer OK for businesses to reach decisions based on the thoughts of one, privileged person. In fact, senior management have a duty to the team members to consult and seek alternative points of view so that they can be sure the important decisions being made are reasonable and correct. We have embraced this at WRS. For evidence, look no further than the creation of this senior management team, who are consulted and involved in the decisions within the business around everything from business development activity through to people management”.

To remove unconscious bias from the decision-making process, you need to structure and define criteria, so the decision is objective and unbiased.

How does WRS make decisions which are objective and unbiased?

Emma Upton, HR Business Partner: “Initially, we need to think about who will be affected by the decision being made and explore the potential outcomes through modelling or discussion. This should help to define some parameters and highlight the key issues surrounding the decision at hand. At that point, it’s about seeking feedback from the team members or anyone else that might be affected by this. Let me give you a real-life example. We were considering whether to increase the holiday entitlement for our employees. Affected parties would be managers, who would have to cope with their staff being away from the office for longer periods of time, and also the employees themselves. We conducted an anonymous survey which addressed this. The anonymity of the survey is key to making sure employees feel they can give their objective opinion without fear of reprisals or judgement. Based on the opinion results, we decided to give increased holiday entitlement to employees based on length of service, which limited the risk for managers but also gave our team members what they wanted. Maybe in the past, or in another company, that decision would have been reached by one person without considering any other viewpoints. Even the fact it came up as a topic for discussion was due to the input from team members who felt it should be looked at. It’s really about people power. After all, our people are the most important part of our business”.

To remove unconscious bias from the workplace is not a quick fix and as a business WRS know this and we are committed to continuing our efforts through awareness, training and process development. Discussion and sharing of experiences within the team, along with regular updates from the business are facilitating our goal - to be a diverse and inclusive company.


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