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How firms can fight unconscious bias

As the global director of culture and inclusion at one BigLaw firm says, “no one is immune from bias”. However, she adds, there are ways that businesses can mitigate against unconscious bias.

user iconShandel McAuliffe 28 July 2022 Big Law
How firms can fight unconscious bias
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Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Lawyers Weekly’s sister brand, HR Leader.

Herbert Smith Freehills’ (HSF) global director of culture and inclusion Danielle Kelly was a guest on The HR Leader podcast, sharing why unconscious bias training is important and why it needs to be delivered at the right time.

Ms Kelly asserted that “if you want to be a good leader, being a good leader means being an inclusive leader, and being an inclusive leader means taking steps to become aware of your unconscious biases”.


In order to train people successfully about unconscious bias, Ms Kelly explained that it should be done at the right time and within a context. She stated: “We don’t run unconscious bias training in a vacuum. So, we don’t have, for example: oh, it’s the month of May, that’s the month that we run unconscious bias training. What we do instead, and I’m sure some listening will do similarly, is we run ‘just in time’ training.”

Ms Kelly gave an example of what this looks like: “I’m on our partner promotion panel, and at the beginning of that week of deliberations each year, we run a conversation for about an hour on unconscious bias and the potential impact of bias in the decision making around who we make partner. And we have a really good conversation, not only about personal bias, but also team bias.”

She continued, outlining some of the biases that may be at play: “So, the team actually spends some time reflecting on what the biases are that we might be subject to in this process. And of course, no surprise, affinity bias is usually top of the list there, but also things like recency bias …”

“Proximity bias” is another type of bias that Ms Kelly discussed on the show, highlighting the issues it may cause for gender equality. She said: “Proximity bias is a very real thing, and I think it’s become part of the common vernacular now in terms of having to understand the impact of it with hybrid working. So, while the changes in working that we’ve all experienced in the last two and a half years have, in many ways, been incredibly beneficial in terms of just the mainstreaming of flexibility, what I think we do need to guard against, as, you know, people now adapt to ongoing hybrid working, is that we don’t end up with some people more often working from home and other people more often working in the office, and that that, in itself, results in a two-tiered system.

“Some of the research, particularly coming out from the US, is pointing to the idea that women are more likely to work from home more often because of the way our societies are structured.”

Ms Kelly shared some of the circumstances that she feels people should be particularly careful about when it comes to unconscious bias: “Absolutely no one is immune from bias, in fact, our unconscious biases are essential for us getting through every day, but where they are often singularly unhelpful is when we allow them to guide our decisions for those really important executive functioning decisions, such as career progression, decisions about talent, decisions about remuneration and bonus. That’s where we really need to engage the prefrontal cortex and not just, almost in a somewhat lazy way, default to unconscious biases.”

To ensure they’re offering a well-rounded solution for unconscious bias training, HSF has covered a number of bases. In addition to helping their recruiters avoid unconscious bias, Ms Kelly shared: “We’ve developed a hub on our intranet, an unconscious bias hub, and so that is something that any team lead or anyone in the firm can access at any time for short seven-minute videos, again, which is ‘just in time’ coaching for, let’s say, you’re about to go in and interview a new member for your team, or you’re about to go and have a career conversation with a member of your team, that’s a really helpful resource for just bringing to the forefront of your awareness what the potential biases might be.

“We’ve also created a second version of that [the hub] that we can share with clients, which a number of clients have found very helpful.”