Former KMPG U.K. chief Bill Michael outraged his employees and ultimately lost his job after mocking the concept of unconscious bias, but human resources professionals say he’s far from the only executive to scoff at diversity and inclusion training.
HR professionals said Michael reflects a silent but substantial minority of C-suite executives who are skeptical of the need for such initiatives, and now feel more emboldened to criticize those efforts by former President
“The group who doesn’t take these types of training seriously and don’t care, are a loud minority,” said Ruhal Dooley, HR Knowledge Advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), an industry group. “When backed into a corner, they do what they can to defend a position. They’ll say ‘No, I’m okay where I am, and because this is who I am, why are you coming down on me?’ ”
Trump’s order restricted federal contractors from offering what his administration called “divisive” diversity and inclusion trainings for workers. President
“I don’t think that executive order really changed anybody’s mind but the people who were already opposed to diversity and inclusion and unconscious bias training in the first place—which weren’t too many out loud—could take some comfort in the president potentially sharing those beliefs,” said Peter Cappelli, professor of management and the director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
“It gave some legitimacy to those positions.”
Michael resigned as KPMG’s U.K. chair and senior partner, a position he held since 2017, on Feb. 12, after a viral Zoom videoin which he told employees to “stop moaning” about potential pandemic-induced cuts, and called unconscious bias training “complete and utter crap.”
“There is no such thing as unconscious bias, I don’t buy it. Because after every single unconscious bias training that has ever been done, nothing’s ever improved,” Michael added.
He quickly apologized for the comments, saying in an emailed statement that he was “truly sorry that my words have caused hurt amongst my colleagues and for the impact the events of this week have had on them.”
KPMG Global didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The idea of unconscious bias or implicit bias training is to improve the culture of the everyday workplace and combat potential underlying biases workers may hold. Companies have increasingly required such training for workers, but implementing those efforts has been a challenge for some HR departments.
Starting at the Top
For HR professionals, the controversy made clear the importance of having the leaders at a company set the tone for anti-bias efforts.
Human resources departments can’t act alone to change the culture at companies, where employees are always watching top executives closely for clues on how they should react to such initiatives, said Nichelle Carpenter, associate professor at the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations.
“Employees can tell when leaders are not united in their support and advocacy for those practices,” Carpenter said, even when executives don’t publicly voice criticism.
“HR can really do so much to build the climate, but it does start at the top,” Carpenter added. “Even though this is an extreme case, I think that it’ll serve as a cautionary tale that we have to make sure that our leaders and executives are consistent. We’ve really looked to our leaders to kind of model the behaviors that are expected of us as workers. And, it’s important to act in a way that instills employees trust and buy-in to these different efforts.”
“Leaders at all levels of the organization—such as supervisors, managers, directors—need to understand the purpose, impact and benefits,” said Deirdre Macbeth, content director at WorldatWork, who specializes in HR compliance and regulatory matters.
As the video of Michael’s remarks went viral, KMPG moved to stem the controversy, placing him under investigation. Company executives do recognize that such views can can have a damaging impact on their reputation with clients and investors, impacts which could hit their bottom line, Dooley said. The challenge for HR professionals is also convincing those executives of the potential for financial gain from bias training and other diversity efforts.
“The proverbial bottom line is that money talks in a capitalist society,” said Dooley.
“Show top executives that the company could get better talent by shifting the mindset, for example, making them more money,” he added. “The company could win more clients or investors this way, for example. That shift could also reduce the cost of litigation, defense, and mediation, as well.
Getting the support of top executives, though, is only the first step, HR professionals said. Equally important is designing and implementing the actual anti-bias intiatives, and getting the support of receptive employees, a process which they said could take months to produce results.
“HR can help, starting with making the training voluntary. That way, we’re not wasting time or money on teaching people who may grow in their defensiveness, but those who are interested in changing,” Dooley said.
“Number two is sustaining it,” he added, including through testing and soliciting feedback to see how the training is impacting workers.
“This will help them show progress over time,” said Dooley. “The third thing I have to do is record progress. There’s a saying in business, if you can’t be measured, it can’t be improved.”
But without the support of the senior-most executives, even the best plans will fall short, HR experts cautioned.
Top executives “should be the first ones to undergo the training or program so they can speak from experience,” Macbeth said.