Panel Examines Unconscious Bias, Encourages ‘Building Bridges’

Author: Dervedia Thomas, Editor, Fund Action

Date: July 2018

The asset management industry should take a closer look at unconscious bias and pay more attention to nuances within employee demographics to foster inclusion, industry pros said at a recent Fund Intelligence breakfast briefing.

“Sometimes when we speak about women, we neglect women of color,” Shaunice Hawkins, principal at Evolutions Consulting and adjunct professor at New York University, said. “When we talk about leadership, we don’t emphasize leadership in the LGBTQ area. We don’t ever emphasize disability or physically other-abled individuals and generational diversity.”

Firms must also take concrete steps to prevent unconscious bias from creeping in, Lori Schneider, partner at K&L Gates, added.

“We all have biases,” she said. “It could be that you’re biased in favor of people who went to your alma mater. It’s not always race or gender. Just being aware of those biases is critically important.”

K&L Gates tackles the issue with a program that assigns and grades summer associates’ work blindly, with the aim of stripping unconscious bias out of these evaluations, Schneider explained.

Organizational culture is also key, Susan Lerner, partner at executive recruitment firm Jamesbeck Partners, argued.

“I think a lot of companies feel like they are behind and need to catch up on the numbers,” she said. “Why don’t we ask ourselves what is the experience that we want to project that suggests culture, workplace environment, experience during the day for that much more diverse employee base.”

For example, companies can use technology to attract and retain younger employees, Hawkins said.

“The younger the generation, the greater the expectation that technology will be embedded in the culture of the organization,” she said. “Therefore, the archaic polices that we have about social media, and the way we regulate the use of technology within the workplace, those things are going to have to change in order to accommodate the expectations and the demands of Millennials and Generation Z.”

For example, firms should look to gamification, biometrics, wearable devices and online courses for employee training programs, Hawkins added.

“At work, employees are still forced to come to a training session for two or three hours, but we’re talking about [very short] attention spans,” she said.

Language can also reveal unconscious bias, Hawkins added. Using the word “minority” can be degrading, she explained.

“Technically by the year 2044, which is around the corner, we will no longer have a minority population. It will be more equitable,” according to Hawkins. “If we’re using this archaic, bias-laced language with [Millennials and Gen Z] they will leave, and where does your pipeline go from there?”

To retain employees, firms should review policies to accommodate changing life situations, according to Lerner.

“It isn’t just women raising children today, or caring for aging parents, or managing some other issue in their personal life,” Lerner said. “Let’s take advantage of technology and allow people to work from home. Maybe they’re managing a difficult period of their lives. Let’s not penalize people for it.”

To move up the corporate ladder, employees can benefit from a sponsor who can recommend them when opportunities arise, George Wilbanks, managing partner at executive recruitment firm Wilbanks Partners, said. “You need a sponsor or an ally, someone who will expend political capital on your behalf to advance your career,” he said.

Wilbanks also pointed out that many after-work social events where employees can build relationships tend to revolve around drinking and sports — activities not every employee is interested in.

“It’s just bad practice,” Wilbanks said. “There are so many other things you could do.”

Wilbanks described a client firm’s strategy, which involved evaluating the success of employee resource group-led activities — such as yoga, or building homes for the less fortunate — on their ability to attract employees outside of their dedicated groups.

“It’s very important that you create bridges; you don’t want to create separation because whatever initiative you create is going to be ineffective if you’re only dealing with the lowest hanging fruit,” Hawkins added.

This article originally appeared in Fund Actionon May 21.

Note: The observations contained in this work represent the best thoughts of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of NICSA or any of its member organizations. Matters addressed in this work may touch upon legal or regulatory matters, however nothing herein is intended to be or should be construed as legal advice. You should contact your own counsel in order to obtain legal advice regarding these or any other matters.


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