Opinion: There is evidence of workplace bias in the civil service – we need some way of addressing that

If the government is determined to eliminate discrimination in the workplace, then it’s time we saw the evidence, says Prospect’s Garry Graham

By Garry Graham

16 Dec 2020

Making workplaces fairer and more equal is in trade unions’ DNA. We have spent decades fighting for fairness for our members who all too often experience discrimination.

Workplace bias is a serious and complex issue which can only be overcome by putting in place measures to identify it, reduce it, and to deal with specific instances of it fairly and in a timely manner. Not everyone affected by bias in the workplace will necessarily have experienced a specific instance of personal discrimination, and yet you can still see the effects of the bias by looking at pay discrepancies, lack of progression and so on. This is a huge issue for trade unions both in terms of time spent dealing with it where it exists, and in the effort we put into addressing it at source.

This week ministers have taken the decision to end unconscious bias training in the civil service. It is perhaps not a surprise that a government which kowtows to its MPs and their “war on woke” has taken this step but it is disappointing, nonetheless. As justification for their move ministers cite evidence that unconscious bias training is not effective, but veer conspicuously away from the evidence that bias exists in the civil service workplace and needs to be addressed.

Let’s take a proper look at the evidence which is available.

We have data on appraisals, and of recruitment and promotion processes, that indicate systemic biases in civil service estimations of merit. We have surveys of workplace behaviours and attitudes that show underrepresentation to be correlated with poor treatment of minority workers.

We also have the Westminster sexual misconduct dossier, and the prime minister’s recent protection, against the ministerial code, of the home secretary’s bullying behaviour – evidence of a dysfunctional and unsafe workplace culture. In this very decision we have evidence of a government whose response to these failings is not “What can we do?”, but “What can we drop?”

If, as is claimed, the government is "determined to eliminate discrimination in the workplace", then I think it’s time we saw the evidence of that. Words are not going to cut it: we need to see actions that match the rhetoric; that demonstrate a true commitment to tackling workplace discrimination.

If the solution is not unconscious bias training, then what does meaningful action look like?

It won’t surprise you that at the top of my list is candid and constructive dialogue with trade unions. Prospect has a record of working with employers to support the development of strategies towards safe and respectful workplace cultures. Where workplaces share our values of equality and respect, we make a great ally.

We advocate a spread of tactics: unconscious bias training might be one, but it certainly isn’t the whole story. We encourage employers to look at their policies, their recruitment and promotion processes, their job-specifications, and the make-up of their decision-making structures for entryways to bias. We run awareness-raising training with senior leaders, to help them see the signatures of discrimination in front of them.

We recommend an evidence-based approach, where employers measure and map the diversity bottlenecks in their organisation, and then measure again to assess the effect of their new tactics.

Most of all, we put the focus on the outcomes. The training, the policies, and the diversity networks, however good, are only a means to an end, rather than the end itself. What matters to us is the real-life, workplace experience of our members. As long as our members tell us that they are being bullied, or discriminated against, then this fight is a long way from over.

If the government pushes on with its plan to drop unconscious bias training, but still wants to address bias in the workplace then it has one option: tell unions what actions it is going to take, and what processes it is going to put in place and let us work with them to ensure that those plans are effective. Unions are experts in this field – make use of us.

Garry Graham is the deputy general secretary of Prospect

Read the most recent articles written by Garry Graham - Civil service leaders must join the chorus and stand up for their staff on pay


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