We trained 45 government officials of a large department in the Dutch Ministry in applying evidence-based interventions to promote diversity and inclusion (D&I) on the working floor. Despite their best attempts, institutions can often fail to successfully engage in D&I due to behavioral barriers and unconscious biases in recruitment, selection, promotion, retention, and organizational culture. This training focused on overcoming these barriers with scientifically proven, measurable solutions from behavioral science.
Diversity and inclusion in the public sector does not only make for a healthier and more productive work environment, but can also contribute to trust and innovation when the government represents the society it serves. Research has shown that diversity and inclusion can strengthen the public sector’s commitment to values like fairness and transparency, and impartiality.
However, the systemic and behavioral changes needed for diversity and inclusion at this scale require a robust approach. In order to kick-start this, The Dutch public sector put together a training program featuring topics like inclusive leadership, neurodiversity, and evidence-based D&I. Our team was asked to focus on the latter, and deliver hands-on training filled with practical tools and interventions.
Approach to Diversity and Inclusion in the Public Sector
The goal of our training was to help stakeholders in the public sector identify and overcome behavioral barriers and cognitive biases in recruitment, selection, promotion, retention, and organizational culture. Cognitive biases are irrational patterns in our thinking that block D&I in predictable ways. The bias blindspot, for example, causes leaders to think that prejudice, exclusion and inequality might be happening everywhere else, but not in their organization. Another example is the halo effect, which causes hiring managers to favor a candidate based on a singular aspect.
The conventional way of trying to mitigate bias by focusing on awareness and trying to change the way people think with unconscious bias training has not proven effective at all. Using recent development in behavioral science, we put together a set of tools and interventions that enable the Dutch public sector to create the systemic changes needed for diversity and inclusion to work.
By the end of the session, we helped the stakeholders identify and categorize possible biases in their organization and equipped them with evidence-based tools and interventions for debiasing recruitment, selection, promotion, retention, and organizational culture. Some examples of the interventions are:
Organizations that try to signal D&I with extensive diversity statements often come off as all talk, no action and backfire. To prevent this, management has to treat and prioritize their D&I strategy as they would every other business objective. You can’t roll out a new sales strategy only by having deep conversations about sales, and the same goes for D&I. We challenged the stakeholders to identify metrics and milestones that operationalize their D&I goals and communicate them clearly and consistently. This form of communication signals an authentic and inclusive climate that attracts a broader pool of applicants.
To prevent hiring managers from being influenced by the Halo effect, we introduced horizontal evaluation as an intervention. Instead of evaluating candidates’ results from top to bottom, hiring managers can compare candidates scores on each individual assessment separately across candidates, and hire based on average scores per assessment. Horizontal evaluation has proven to interrupt several biases in hiring managers and helps them view candidates more objectively. Institutions in the public sector can easily test and adopt this intervention by tweaking the selection process and training hiring managers to assess horizontally.
In many organizations, employees belonging to minority groups are less likely to ask for promotion than employees in majority groups. This causes an asymmetry in upper management leading to a lack of diversity in the group of stakeholders that represent the organization and its interest. Asides from training HR staff and talent managers to prompt all high potential employees to step up and ask for promotion, we proposed a more systemic intervention. By tweaking their HR systems to automatically consider employees for promotion after they pass a predetermined qualification threshold, the public sector can level the playing field for all high potential employees. As they are considered by default, employees can still decide for themselves whether they want to opt-out of a promotion.
Having equipped key stakeholders in the public sector with a toolkit of evidence-based practices and interventions that will help them create a culture of diversity and inclusion, they will start scaling these solutions across their organization. Behavioral change is a process of constant testing, iteration, and improvement. With the right tools and strategies in place, they are set up for success.
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