AstraZeneca is taking steps to dismantle unconscious bias in the workplace as part of its wider efforts to embed diversity, equity and inclusion into its business practices.

DEI has been a priority for the multinational pharmaceutical company for many years, specifically in the area of unconscious bias, says Gena Restivo, its vice-president of human resources, communications and sustainability in Canada.

Internally, AstraZeneca is focusing on three key priorities to ensure it’s building DEI into its business and stripping unconscious bias from its processes: empowering inclusive leadership that values, seeks out and makes the most of differences; fostering a culture where employees can speak their minds and bring their best selves to work; and building a diverse leadership and talent pipeline.

Read: 2022 GIC coverage: Embedding DEI into business practice removes blind spots, barriers for institutional investors

Bias is a defense mechanism that helps people survive, says Jason Murray, president and managing partner of BIPOC Executive Search Inc. “If a stove is on, our assumption is that we shouldn’t touch it because we’ll burn ourselves.”

He says the goal of unconscious bias training is for people to recognize when they’re forming a judgment based on things they shouldn’t factor into their assessment.

Lessons in unconscious bias

In February 2022, AstraZeneca held a learning session on dismantling racial bias in the workplace.

Hosted by a racial equity educator and speaker, the session included lessons on Canadian Black history and highlighted Black Canadians and their contributions to society and the country.

People don’t often realize they have unconscious biases, says Jaime Duguid, AstraZeneca’s HR business partner and lead of its inclusion counsel in Canada. An individual’s frame of reference — the community in which they grew up — is the only one they know, she adds, so unconscious bias programming should include safe and open dialogue that conveys how it manifests in real life. “It’s important employees leave these sessions knowing unconscious bias is in all of us, no matter how progressive we think we are.”

By the numbers

A third of organizations participating in the CFA Institute’s September 2021 DEI program said they’ve trained between 81% and 99% of their employees in detecting unconscious bias or practicing inclusive leadership. In terms of hiring, the respondents noted the following:

• 54% said fewer than 50% of their roles are filled by internal candidates;

• 24% said internal candidates fill roughly half of these roles;

3% fill the majority of these roles by promoting from within;

24% of respondents require a diverse slate of candidates when hiring, while 49% said it’s encouraged but not mandatory; and

2% said they always have diverse interview panels, while 48% said it isn’t a requirement.

For AstraZeneca employees who attended the session, one of the biggest “a-ha moments” was learning diversity isn’t just a number, says Duguid, noting employers need to create an environment where diverse employees have a voice and feel included. The speaker pointed out that true diverse organizations allow for representation, acknowledgement and action that moves diversity from a checkmark to a conduit for inclusivity, productivity and innovation, she adds.

Read: Majority of U.S. employers implementing DEI initiatives in 2021: survey

The initiative has spawned new employee resource groups, says Restivo, noting AstraZeneca employees recently started a French-language resource group and a neurodiversity resource group. “People are so engaged that they want to continue these important and sometimes uncomfortable conversations because they know it will only serve to make the organization better [and] stronger.”

Many of BIPOC Executive Search’s clients have requested unconscious bias training, says Murray, adding employees are becoming more vocal about the type of culture they want to see at work and employers are receptive to these calls for action.

A top-down approach

Andrea Bartlett, Humi’s director of people operations, has seen the challenges that self-identifying minority employees go through with respect to DEI initiatives and conversations within a company.

Whether or not an organization has formal training or specific policies, if leadership isn’t receptive to hearing about other peoples’ lived experiences, it can be uncomfortable for any visible minority, she says, noting these types of initiatives must be a priority for senior leadership, but too often that isn’t the case. “It’s absolutely important for senior management to lead by example and they also must be willing to get uncomfortable.”

Read: How to build a psychologically safe workplace

Last year, AstraZeneca’s senior leadership team was put through an inclusive assessment. Leaders were then expected to embed the learnings into their management style. And the organization’s efforts are paying off — a recent pulse survey found 89 per cent of employees said their managers role model DEI in everything they do.

Leaders create the psychological safety that employees need to engage in these uncomfortable conversations, says Restivo, adding they also must be self-aware and conscious of missteps or opportunities where the company can improve. When leadership becomes more conscious, they engage in different conversations and they recruit diverse perspectives and ideas, she adds.

Building a diverse pipeline

When it comes to hiring, the first interaction an individual has with a potential new employer is the resumé, which holds many personal details that could trigger unconscious bias, says Murray, noting the more aware people are of their biases, the better they’ll become at making sure they keep them in check during the recruitment process.

Bartlett also suggests organizations implement diverse hiring practices to ensure there’s a number of perspectives at the table during the process.

Indeed, AstraZeneca constantly re-examines its hiring practices to ensure there’s a diverse slate of candidates and representation on its interview panels. The company also ensures diversity is reflected in its promotions. Half (50 per cent) of its executive team and 60 per cent of its senior management team is female, says Restivo.

Read: Most U.S. employers haven’t embedded DEI, accessibility initiatives into daily processes: survey

In 2021, 69 per cent of the company’s promotions were for female staff and 52 per cent of those were from BIPOC communities. “We drive innovation because we are a diverse organization. At the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do, not just for the business but also for the world in which we operate.”

Lauren Bailey is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.