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BBC News: And finally, the risk of unconscious bias.

A casual browse of the firm’s recent blog posts will reveal our employment team’s interest in the BBC pay debacle.

This curiosity is not due to natural inquisitiveness or even schadenfreude - well at least not entirely: the pay controversy also raises many important HR issues.

For those who may have been on retreat in Tibet, the controversy arose after the BBC was required to issue salary details for all staff earning more than £150,000. Turns out that those at the top of the list tended to be men.

Or more accurately middle aged men; or, let’s face it, white middle aged men.

Anyway here are our earlier thoughts on two issues connected to the BBC rich list, namely pay transparency and the organisation’s optimistic plans to have their house in order by 2020.

Fascinating as all this, is there are many other employment issues out there. Accordingly please forgive us for making one last reference to the BBC pay challenges before we move on – at least for the time being.

The question of unconscious bias

The question I am asking is – how did this happen?

Was the apparent bias in favour of white middle age males as a result of a conscious decision by the BBC?

Clearly not.

However, there are suggestions that there was still bias, albeit unconscious. Unfortunately this can give rise to almost as many HR problems as deliberate actions.

And let’s be honest, “I didn’t mean it” rarely works as a defence to an employment tribunal claim.

How does unconscious bias work?

If I tend to recruit, promote and pay people I know well or feel most comfortable with, this may mean I am excluding particular groups.

For example if most of my leisure time is spent at the golf club, then it may well be my employee demographics are very similar to those you’d see in these places, and consequently may not reflect society at large.

It would be unfair (and somewhat clichéd) to only highlight golf clubs. It would be equally the case if my social life revolves round (say) a love of football, a devotion to a particular church, or a fondness for spa and prosecco days.

That does not mean any of us deliberately exclude those of different interests, faiths or lifestyles; however, it may mean we are less likely to give them a job or a pay rise.

If we focus on pay, one way to reduce the risk of bias is by a job evaluation exercise.

This values the job with reference to the specific post as opposed to focussing on the individual who performs the role. Job evaluation can be contrasted with the BBC approach that uses “spot salaries” i.e reaching individual agreements with their talent without reference to objective pay scales or grades.

Spot salaries: pros and cons

There are reasons to favour spot salaries.

They can allow flexibility, fully recognise market forces and also reward individual merit.

However, the absence of more objective measures does mean that employers taking this route are more vulnerable to challenges under the Equality Act.

Accordingly if businesses use these they should carefully consider how they can explain and justify particular salaries. They should also ask if the business genuinely benefits from individual spot salaries, and the related risk of unconscious bias, or whether a more objective approach would be sensible.

Over and above inviting bad publicity, unconscious bias can encourage claims including indirect discrimination and equal pay.

Further, if our approach to rewarding staff favours a particular demographic then inevitably we are failing to take full advantage of the wider pool of talent.

Although using “more objective” techniques such as job evaluations or selecting a successful applicant through psychometric tests may initially seem a cold and mechanical way to run a business, none of us wants to miss out on the most talented individuals.

Equally, our businesses are not strengthened if we overpay and, or over-promote the wrong people.

Over paying? I have thus far avoided the temptation to make specific reference to one or two high earners at the top of the BBC rich list and I am not going to start now. For those interested here is one last reminder – so you can judge. http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/insidethebbc/reports/pdf/annex_annual_report_201617.pdf

Sine Mackay

Associate Sine Mackay specialises in employment law and provides advice to employers. She advises clients on a number of issues, including redundancy, family-friendly rights, grievance matters, equal opportunities and performance management.

Posted, 12 September 2017 by Sine Mackay
Categories: Employment