Addressing Unconscious Bias—Something We All Have: A Look at Unconscious Bias Workshops for Managers at Mercari

Have you ever heard the term “unconscious bias”? Put simply, unconscious bias refers to the unconscious assumptions we develop through our life experiences and culture. Typical examples include thinking things like women with kids can’t devote themselves to work, or that you’d have trouble communicating with someone because they’re a foreigner. These assumptions can even inhibit our organization from becoming more diverse.

Given the importance of getting rid of unconscious bias, Mercari began holding workshops on the topic for managers. However, instead of trying to get rid of the bias, the workshops focus on how to become aware of unconscious bias.

We began running unconscious bias workshops in early 2020. By last December, all managers had participated in the workshops. Having reached this milestone, we decided to bring together Mercari CHRO Tatsuo Kinoshita (@tatsuo), project owner and HRB member Cheng Tsz Kiu (@Liz), and workshop participant and PM Head of the CRE Team Yuta Kokubun to reflect on the process.

Featured in this article

  • Tatsuo Kinoshita (@tatsuo)

    Joined P&G, where he was responsible for recruiting and HRBP in the HR division. After joining GE Japan in 2001 and working in the US and Thailand, he held consecutive roles as Black Belt at the Plastics Division, HR Director of the Financial Division in 2007, and Organization & Talent Development HR Director for Asia. After taking an 8-month sabbatical in 2011, he became Head of HR for GE Japan in 2012. In 2015, he assumed the role of HR Director for the Asia Pacific Organization & Talent Development Division in Malaysia. He joined Mercari, Inc. in December 2018 as CHRO (Chief Human Resources Officer).

  • Cheng Tsz Kiu (@Liz)

    Came to Japan after graduating from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2014. She joined Mercari in December 2017 and launched the Global Recruitment and Diversity & Inclusion projects. In April 2019, she transferred to HRBP team while also working on D&I Leadership Development as a side project.

  • Yuta Kokubun (@yuta_bnbn)

    Joined Mercari in July 2018 after working at an IT consulting company and two startups. As a product manager, he has worked on projects including increasing customer satisfaction, improving account usage restrictions, and d Point connection. He became the PM Head of CRE in July 2020.

We all have unconscious bias. This reality inspired us to make a workshop on it for managers.

@tatsuo: Unconscious bias refers to distortions in our perspectives of which we are completely unaware. Even if you know not to say things that exclude minorities, it can be very difficult to recognize distortions in the perspectives that make up our deep-rooted beliefs. Learning to recognize and overcome unconscious bias is crucial for preventing it from affecting important decision-making processes, like hiring and evaluations.

from top left: @Liz, @tatsuo, @yuta_bnbn

@tatsuo: How can we reduce our own unconscious bias? This process can be broken down into two major steps.

1: Understand that we all have unconscious bias
2: Learn to recognize unconscious bias in others

@tatsuo: None of us can escape having unconscious bias. Simply recognizing this reality alone can lead to making more accurate decisions. And furthermore, we should understand that others around us also have unconscious bias.

This second step may be fairly easy, but the first step is quite challenging. We hoped that getting managers to develop a common language around unconscious bias, where everyone gives each other feedback in situations like evaluations and salary calibration, could lead to more accurate decision making. This idea led us to begin holding unconscious bias workshops this year for all managers. As a company with talented members from all over the world, we want everybody to succeed, regardless of their background. Creating this environment for all to perform well requires reducing bias as much as possible.

@tatsuo: It may sound like we are just beginning these unconscious bias workshops at Mercari, but @Liz actually put them together a while back with other members in the organization. What first led you to launch these workshops?

@Liz: We launched the workshop in March 2019. More and more English-speaking members joined the company from the end of December 2018 through early 2019. We would start hearing the term “global member” used very frequently. D&I is a topic that includes all of us; it goes beyond just specific categories of people. We put together the workshop with the intention of increasing awareness that D&I relates to all individuals.

At the time, we saw various examples of unconscious bias across the organization, beyond just interactions between Japanese speakers and English speakers. Examples include a manager saying to a member that wasn’t married, “This other team member is married, so I’ll send you on the business trip,” or a member saying, “I’m a man, so I’ll explain the situation logically to you.” The way people communicate directly affects the level of employee inclusion in the company. Our motivation for increasing understanding of unconscious bias also included promoting D&I.

In March 2019, we ran a pilot version for the managers of People & Culture. After receiving very positive feedback about the workshop, we tried running the workshops for teams that reached out to us. As more people came to learn of the workshop, we made it a mandatory workshop for all Mercari Group managers in the beginning of 2020.

@Liz: Tatsuo, I remember that you were very insistent about making unconscious bias workshops mandatory for all managers.

@tatsuo: Yes, exactly. At Mercari, we break down management into three different categories: strategy management, work management, and member management. This third category of member management focuses on creating an environment where a diverse range of employees can succeed. In order to achieve this goal, it’s crucial for managers to be aware of unconscious bias within their own role.

This workshop shows you the danger of not recognizing your own unconscious bias

@tatsuo: I’d like to ask a participant their thoughts after participating in the unconscious bias workshop. Let’s welcome @yuta_bnbn to the discussion. What did you think of the workshop?

@yuta_bnbn: The workshop brought many things to my attention, and in particular, the danger of not being unaware of unconscious bias. You can’t apologize or attempt to repair a relationship without first even recognizing your own unconscious bias. Without an awareness of unconscious bias, you end up assuming things about others and how they will act. These assumptions lead us to recognizing only the reality we want to see, without even actually getting to know those around us.

@yuta_bnbn: By participating in this workshop, I started to recognize areas where I still lacked awareness. I learned that I had yet to recognize my own unconscious bias. I feel that I now understand the importance of achieving a shared understanding of unconscious bias across the company.

@tatsuo: I understand completely. Unconscious bias that stems from good intentions is actually the most dangerous form. When you have good intentions, even if those around you recognize the distortion in your perspective, they may hesitate to voice their opinions. An example would be deciding as a manager that a female member with a child wouldn’t be able to go on a business trip, and not even considering them for such opportunities. If that female member has support from her family members for childcare, their manager would be biased in making this decision. Furthermore, this decision could lead to a drop in motivation.

@Liz: @yuta_bnbn, have you come across unconscious bias in your work so far as a manager?

@yuta_bnbn: I am sometimes asked things like, “How do you think a global member would react?” I believe it’s better to first talk to the person directly before making a decision. And on that note, there’s no such thing as a “global member.” Everybody has their own name and individual personality. I do not think we should be categorizing personalities by nationality.

@Liz: Yes, each individual is different. @yuta_bnbn, you actually applied to become a facilitator yourself after taking the unconscious bias workshop. It’s great to see how passionate you have become about the topic!

@yuta_bnbn: Yes, I did! Increasing awareness of unconscious bias will make our organization stronger. I felt we could all benefit by learning about unconscious bias, so I applied to become a facilitator. Or rather, I would say by becoming a facilitator teaching about unconscious bias, I myself could learn more and naturally deepen my own understanding. I also felt it would help me in my job going forward, as I have more and more opportunities to work with members from a diverse range of backgrounds.

The workshop included many other helpful examples for working as a manager. Truly effective learning requires developing your own awareness. Management is all about enabling your members to realize how they can improve. Skipping over this process of developing your own awareness and simply suggesting actions one should take can actually turn people away and cause them to stop listening.

People at Mercari have a very strong drive to grow and always take the initiative to learn. The goal of this workshop is to develop awareness. Therefore, the next major step was to get managers to raise the awareness of their own members.

The Importance of “Unbiasing” in HR and Hiring

@tatsuo: @yuta_bnbn’s comments made me think of the behavioral economics term “nudging” that you hear these days in HR. Nudging means helping someone to realize something themselves rather than forcing them to do something. For example, we introduced a step in the hiring and manager promotion process to ask if the recommender considered members from other backgrounds. Doing so gives the recommender an opportunity to realize that they might want to consider a more diverse talent pool. Recently, we have been working this kind of step into many different HR processes.

It’s absolutely crucial to be aware of unconscious bias in the hiring process as well. Interviewers have a tendency to hire candidates with similar attributes. By having interviewers from various backgrounds, we can fairly evaluate a diverse range of candidates, and ultimately succeed in hiring talented individuals. The hiring team has recently been working on a process to assign interviewers from a wide range of backgrounds.

@Liz: In addition, during the evaluation season, the HRBP Team shares materials with managers covering examples of unconscious bias that occur often in the evaluation process. Doing so helps managers to pick up on any potential unconscious bias in the evaluation process, and also makes it easy for HRBP to point it out.

@yuta_bnbn: Japan is still not a very accepting place for individuals that may stand out. By teaching about unconscious bias even outside of the Mercari Group, I believe we can develop a more comfortable working culture for society as a whole. In that sense, by understanding unconscious bias, we can ultimately benefit society by creating a more accepting world. We hope to also come up with some other ideas beyond these workshops.

@Liz: Yes, I agree. So far we have only held the workshop for managers, but some participants have actually asked for us to hold the workshop for their team. We adjusted the content a bit and held the workshop as a form of team building.

Many managers took the initiative to share the materials with their team and ask their members to point out any unconscious bias they may notice. This stance makes it easier for members to give feedback to their manager. I feel that we now get to hear the term “unconscious bias” used more and more frequently.

@tatsuo: Beyond these unconscious bias workshops, we also share knowledge with one another from a bottom-up approach. One example includes the LGBT+ sharing session. Instead of waiting for direction from one’s superiors, members take the initiative to educate one another. We are so happy to see participants like @yuta_bnbn express what they were able to learn from these events. Learning about unconscious bias has really become a part of the Mercari culture.

Awareness Alone Does Not Equate to Being Able to Point Something Out to Others

@tatsuo: However, at Mercari we still have a long way to go in this unbiasing journey. We have finally all started to understand unconscious bias, which means we now need to begin using a common language on the topic across the company. That is why we want to develop an understanding at the member level as well. Once members develop a basic understanding of unconscious bias, managers should be able to more effectively provide feedback. This process requires not just knowledge, but psychological safety.

@Liz: I completely agree! I can provide information on unconscious bias, but getting others to develop an awareness of the concept and actually point it out in others is a completely different process. For example, even if we use a common language around the concept, we need to feel a sense of psychological safety in order to discuss with one another comfortably. So really, we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to unconscious bias.

@tatsuo Yes, exactly. We will start 2021 with a pilot program, such as by holding the workshop for members of People & Culture. I hope we can put to use what members of HR take away from the session to put together new initiatives.

@Liz: What a great idea! We will be releasing the facilitator guide and providing opportunities for more and more members to learn about unconscious bias. I am excited to continue collaborating with all of you!

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