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Dan Robertson

Dan Robertson is the Director of VERCIDA Consulting. 

He is widely regarded as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity & inclusion, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership.

Listen to the episode

Tune in to find out:


  • What is meant by bias, which is essentially assumption.
  • Affinity bias: your natural tendency to gravitate towards people who are like you.
  • Confirmation bias: your formed impression of somebody.
  • Seeing collusion within the key types of biases.
  • Bias - good people with good intention with unintended consequences.
  • Exclusion: an outcome of not including people who are like us.
  • The importance of mitigating biases.
  • Ways of mitigating biases as a person leading a team or running an agency.
  • Stepping out of your comfort zone of your group to get to know difference.
  • And much more!

[0:00:05.8] ANNOUNCER: Welcome back to Happy Porch Radio, the digital agency podcast for
progressive agency owners and web professionals.
Season Four is an exploration of diversity in our industry, especially gender diversity. This
season your host, Barry O’Kane, is joined by some wonderful cohosts for conversations with
agency leaders and diversity and inclusion experts.
[0:00:31.7] BOK: Hello and welcome back to Happy Porch Radio. This episode is the first of a
two-part conversation with Dan Robertson. We spoke to Dan back in episode one of the season
and it was so good, we invited him back for more. Dan is an expert on work place diversity and
inclusion, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership.
This conversation extends our chat from episode one of the season, going more into depth into
what a bias is, types of biases and providing some really insightful and real world tips for how to
manage biases within yourself and your teams. My cohost this episode is the wonderful Kate.
Kate, by the way, is cofounder of Fat Free Media, a creative agency specializing in animation
and video based in Nottingham. I’m really grateful to have her join me as cohost.
Let’s meet Dan.
[0:01:31.1] DR: Thanks for having me back. Dan Robertson, the director of Vercida Consulting,
we are a global inclusion management company who essentially advises corporations all over
the world, really on kind of being both diversity inclusive.
[0:01:43.4] BOK: Thank you, welcome back again Dan.
[0:01:46.3] DR: Thanks for having me.
[0:01:47.6] BOK: Joining us for this episode again, we have Kate cohosting with me, hi Kate.
[0:01:50.8] KV: Hello.
[0:01:51.8] BOK: Dan, I really enjoyed the conversation we had at the start, it was the first
episode of the season. We’re now nearing the end of this season. I’m really – I feel like this is a
really powerful way to kind of, from our point of view extend the conversation that we started in
the last episode, which by the way as an aside has been, the episode that I’ve had the most
positive feedback about in this whole season so that’s pretty cool.
One thing that we touched on in the first episode was bias and the types of bias and the way
that we talk about biases generally. I thought that would be a good place to start this
conversation. If you can tell us a little bit about or expanding on what we talked about last time
about the different types of bias.
[0:02:31.1] DR: Year, this place is sort of a reminder. I think the first message is reminding
everybody that you know, obviously, we all have biases. It’s part of actually human DNA, it’s
how we’re constructed. There are probably, I think it’s about 151 known cognitive biases
actually. Your listeners will be pleased to know that I won’t go for all of those 151 known biases.
But the basic deal is, the human brain operates through these process of what we call
Heuristics or shortcuts. We make shortcuts in terms of our everyday decisions. In many ways,
the shortcuts are quite useful for us because it makes our decision making process very efficient
The downside or the flip type kind or heuristic decision making is the really kind of shortcuts,
particularly when they’re based on judgment than when they’re based on judgment simulation to
people, often or kind of anchored in a whole set of stereotypes. What we might do, we might
have some biases around the role of men and women in the workplace for example. If we make
an assumption, which is essentially what bias is, we might assume that women want to do
certain types of roles, maybe traditional stereotypes would be child care.
Or things around the caring profession and men would want to be engineers and scientists and
all of that. The problem with the biases, that’s kind of stage one if you like of assumption
making. The problem then really kind of kicks in when we’re making decisions.
The classic example is if we’re hiring and a certain type of person comes to mind who we’re
used to, we’re more like to hire people who traditionally have been scientists and engineers and
the rest of it, which often happen to be male, or we are more likely to hire certain types of
people who have been primary school teachers or individuals looking after children who are
female. This is what’s known as the kind of representative heuristics, that’s the kind of technical
jargon for.
What we’ve seen before represents what we expect to be. What we experience through our
social interactions, things we see on the television, etc, creates a set of expectations-not just
what is but also what should be. This representative heuristic plays out in all sorts of areas of
life, whether it’s hiring, whether it’s job promotions and the rest of it. I’ll just remind your listeners
of a couple of I guess the key types of biases, which we might want to be mindful of.
One is, what we call affinity bias. An affinity bias is that notion that we have a natural tendency
as human beings, just simply to gravitate towards people who are like us. People that look like
us and sound like us, people that think like us, people have a similar work style, maybe
somebody that comes from a similar town or went to the same university.
Wouldn’t we find some commonality, that commonality leads to a warmth, and we generally
start to make decisions as human beings based on warmth. If you’d like somebody, first of all,
you’re much more likely to like them because they’re like you and then that falls into a second
type of bias and the psychobabble for this is fundamental attribution error, which really means
is, we like to attribute positively to people who are in my in group and we’re liked to attribute less
positively or sometimes negatively to people who are in my out group.
[0:06:10.0] DR: Positive to people in your in group, negative to people in your out group. Lots
and lots of different types of biases. The second key type of biases is what we call confirmation
bias and confirmation bias is you would form an impression of somebody and that impression
could be positive or it could be less positive.
Once that impression is formed, it’s formed very quickly. We generally look for information,
which confirms, hey, I really like somebody or actually somebody’s a bit of an irritant. Even
thought we can list the different types of biases that we have where its affinity bias, confirmation
bias, other things like the halo effect. In reality, what these biases do is they start to collude
together. Let’s take an example of where we start collusion with these types of biases.
[0:06:59.8] KV: Use an interview or recruitment context. First time hiring managers would see a
candidate, would generally be on a piece of paper. Be on a CD or an application form. On that
CD application form would be a whole bunch of information, which is useful for the hiring
managers. What is their skill, what are their experiences, et cetera.
Your conscious brain is reading that and trying to make a sensible measure in terms of whether
you want to select this individual for interview. While your unconscious is also doing is standing
the CD and just looking for clues, which indicate, they extend to which the candidate is like you.
Those clues can be things like somebody’s name, somebody’s age, where they were born, what
university they went to, their hobbies, their interest. You start to create some kind of affinity bias
and some kind of impression of somebody on that piece of paper even before you meet them.
If you then select a certain amount of people for interview, those that you have some kind of
warm glow about already, you’re kind of looking forward to seeing the interview. Confirmation
bias kicks in at the interview scenario and confirmation bias and affinity bias really start to play
out together and so what we’re doing at the interview is, waiting for somebody to be great and
supporting the answers because we expect them to be so because we’ve got that impression.
But we’ll probably be less warm to somebody that we might think is fairly average but we’re
going to see them anyway. There’s a whole bunch of other biases, which we start to kick in and
the kind of, it’s like a building effect. We start with affinity bias, confirmation bias support that
and then we have things like called the attribution bias and then things like the halo effect as
well. All of these different types of biases are kind of interacting and supporting each other in
things like interviews, many different life and work scenarios as well.
[0:08:50.0] BOK: Yeah, thank you, that was really fascinating. I’d like to kind of step over some
of that a little bit again and thing you said right at the start was that this biases is just a human
thing, it’s just something that’s built into the way that we have evolved.
I wanted to sort of just reiterate that and because maybe this is me being simplistic but
sometimes, it can feel like the conversation about biases are kind of criticism or that’s a flaw or
a problem or I’m not bias because that would somehow make me a bad person.
I think that that’s – I find that interesting or that challenge around the interesting because then,
when we fly in next to the conversation about how do we mitigate bias, we have to understand
exactly what it is first, is that a fair statement?
[0:09:38.3] DR: Yeah, absolutely. This is actually a really great book, it’s by two Harvard
professors. Manager. It is called, Why Good People Do Bad Things. Really kind of plays into
kind of what you say. When we use the term bias, you’re right. It feels really negative, it feels
like you know, does that mean I’m a bad person and the rest of it. In a way, what we need to do
is – actually, we can even replace the word, we can talk about human preferences if we like or
we can use the word where slightly more comfortable with.
This is definitely not about bad people doing bad things. This is often about good people doing
things that they’re not even aware of. That’s the way that I would normally think about bias
actually. Another thing that I would probably add is good people with good intention with
unintended consequences.
In fact, I’ll just share a quick story actually, if you don’t mind with you and your listeners. The
story goes like this. This is a true story actually. There’s a professor of literature actually, at
Harvard University and she, impressive literature but she’s got a hobby and her hobby is
crochet, you know, like knitting, crochet, that kind of thing. In fact, she loves it, she adores
crocheting and all of that sort of thing.
Obviously, one day, she’s at home, not work, she’s at home, she’s crocheting away and then
she holds that for a while and thinks, “I need to go and start preparing dinner.” True story, she
goes into the kitchen, starts preparing the dinner and then she is chopping the vegetables and
as she’s chopping the vegetables, she’s cutting away, she slices her finger and she nearly
slices it off.
She gets herself to the hospital, gets to see the doctor and she says to the doctor, “I’m crazy
about crochet, I hope I’m not going to lose my finger" and so the doctor says, “Let me have a
look into it, quick examination says, you’re going to be fine, don’t worry but we do need to get
you to the operating theatre, get it sorted out.”
As they’re walking down the corridor towards the theater, an intern walks by and the intern says,
“Hey professor so and so, what are you doing here? What happened?” The professor tells her,
"I was at home crocheting, stopped that, chopping the vegetables, nearly sliced my finger off.”
The doctor says to the intern, “She’s your professor?” She says “Yes, this is my professor, she’s
a professor of literature at Harvard.” The doctor immediately asked the professor of literature at
Harvard to take a seat, he goes to make a call, finds the best surgeon that he can in the county,
the best surgeon arrives, stitches her finger up and sends her off home.
What’s the moral of that story? What’s going on here? An interesting random connectivity, which
is the intern, the doctor and the professor have a connection, all of them of Harvard University
and that doctor made a very instinctual decision in that moment, which was, we’ve got this
affinity, rather than me do it, I will find you the best that I can who can arrive within a few hours
and the rest of it.
Now, what’s interesting about this, remember when we’re talking about here is outcomes, if you
had said to the doctor, “do you realize that you are giving your patient’s preferential treatment
simply based on a random connection that you both went to Harvard University.” He would have
been offended by that but not only would he have been, he was because he was interviewed
and he said, “I give fair and equitable treatment to all of my patients regardless of who they are,
where they come from" but the reality of life is we don’t. Now what is interesting about this story
is intention. His intention is not to give differential treatment.
And his intention is actually positivity is about saying we have this emotional connection, in this
case it is a particular university. It could be anything. I would make sure that I give you or find
you the best decision that I can and I think that is interesting around bias because most people’s
motivation is inclusion as oppose to exclusion but we have a fundamental motivation to include
people who are like us and therefore exclusion is an outcome of not including people who are
like us if that makes sense.
[0:14:03.0] BOK: And as you said the intention and the motivation is almost independent of or I
am not deliberately setting out to be biased.
[0:14:13.0] DR: No, no absolutely not. It is a great intention. There is lots of examples even if
you – some famous experiments that we are doing with football teams actually. So if you are in
a football team and you see somebody walking down street in a scarf of your football team and
they trip over, you’re likely to cross the road and pick them up and if somebody maybe to do
with football rivalry or somebody is walking down the high street and they are in a scarf of your
rival team and they trip over, you don’t cross the road and you don’t pick them up.
[0:14:48.6] BOK: So let us bring the conversation back to teams or agencies and running
agencies and working in companies. So we’ve talked a little bit about what biases and how and
that it is not something that somebody consciously being bad and it is something that is inherent
to us all in our own different ways. So let us talk a little bit about – actually before talking about
mitigate, I want to ask another question, why is it important to mitigate those biases?
[0:15:15.3] DR: I guess the reason why it is important to mitigate bias is because the simple
way to describe it is regardless of our intention, human behavior is not fair. It is almost as simple
as that and so the outcomes of bias whether they’re intentional often unintentional are quite
severe and in a work place context they’re severe in terms of the huge impact it has on people’s
opportunity. So what the evidence says is managers are likely to do certain things basically.
Well first of all, you’re more likely to hire people that are like you. So we know that there is an
advantage or disadvantage in the hiring process and if you think about that these are things
without being over dramatic, which really affect people’s life chances and so bias effects
whether you could get what school you could get into, it affects how you do at school, it affects
your employment opportunities, once you have a job it affects what kind of projects you are
assigned to.
It affects how managers give you feedback and the level of feedback they give you and
fundamentally, it really has a really significant effect in terms of people’s opportunities, in terms
of pipeline. We know this because bias in a structural level is relatively easy to detect because it
simply resorts in organization trends and patterns. So we can look at organization data by men,
women, different ethnic groups, people with disabilities etcetera and we can find quite easily
patterns of hiring.
Patterns of work opportunities, who ends up in leadership positions and the rest of it. So I guess
the whole conversation about talking about biases is because we know, it ranges to have quite
a fundamental impact in terms of team relationships and work opportunities and I guess what
we are trying to do in a workplace context is say, “We have policies which are designed to make
sure that our work is fair and management decisions are consistent and free from bias.
The reality of life is that those policies simply do not work, we know that for sure. The human
brain looks at those policies and says, “Thanks but no thanks. I’ll do something else” and I
supposed that’s significance in terms of why we’re having a conversation about bias in the first
[0:17:48.1] BOK: Having sort of set the very high broad context there. Let us talk a little bit
about mitigating bias and particularly from the point of view of somebody who is leading a team
or running an agency. Where do I even begin with that conversation with that challenge?
[0:18:06.9] DR: Yes, that is a really good question and I think actually moving from the doom
and gloom I guess of bias to the positivity, which is we can mitigate bias actually and that’s
really quite cool. We know that we cannot eliminate bias. That is not neurologically possible but
we can control it and we can mitigate. That is really good actually. So what can managers do?
What the research points to is some really interesting things.
One is the notion of what we call the contact hypothesis and what that essentially means is
generally as human beings, we have a tendency to hang out with people that are similar to us.
That tendency plays out in the world of work and that can play out into some of the informal
ways, which is as a manager, what is your informal relationship with colleagues. So who do
managers have lunch with, who do they have coffee with, if you’re having drinks with colleagues
after work.
You do tend to go for a drink with them at Friday evenings, those sorts of things. So what we
are trying to do is say, “Well how come we make sure that we connect with people who are
different from us?” what are the structures that we can point to place and what are the
mechanisms that we can point to place? So this would depend on the size of the organization
but lots of organizations these days it’s fairly standard to have things like what would that
network groups or affinity groups.
So many organizations would have a women’s network or an LGBT network, a disability
network, networks based on different face and different religions and different cultures, those
sorts of things. One of the things that we know is quite important and those network groups will
often have events. So they might be some kind of networking event or something like that. I
personally spend a whole bunch of my time hanging out to women’s development networks.
So why do I as a white male hangout at women’s development networks? Well it’s just two
fundamental things for me. One is and these are women who are extremely senior, they are
running global businesses, it’s just two things. One is the way that the brain works, it works for a
process of what we call pattern matching. So if I am constantly exposed to women doing
childcare, cleaning jobs, admin type jobs those sorts of things, the more that I am exposed to
that every day in work.
And through conversations I have with family and friends, that pattern matching process
becomes wired in the human brain. So what you are doing through a process of just connecting
with women’s networks is you are essentially trying to rewire the human brain, which we know
that we can do. So what I am doing is I am counter stereotyping. So I am saying by hanging out
with women at a senior level is that I know that all women are not cleaners or admin support.
I know that from my constant exposure to senior women is that women are leaders, they are
smart, they’re ambitious, they are all the things that we stereotypically don’t associate. So the
point of connection is that it works on this principle of counter stereotyping and you counter
stereotype by connecting with people. So it is actually having two positive consequences at the
same time. What is this reducing my stereotypes.
It is starting to rewire my neurology but it is also building something positive, which is what we
call crucial competence and so I literally now not because I am super human but because of
many years of experiences, I find it very, very difficult to stereotype against women and the
reason that I find it very difficult is because I know so many women in my personal life so I have
female friends as well as colleagues that I know that they’re experiences.
Their wants, their needs, their levels of ambition are too broad for me to simply narrow it down
into one sentence. So that prevents my brain from saying all women want X or Y. So the contact
hypothesis is a great way of mitigating bias. You can also do that in lots of other ways. For
example in the UK, we have essentially what is called a – you can call it like a diversity
calendar. So in October it is Black History Month and right now in February, it’s LGBT history
We have International Women’s Day like most of the places. We have events around mental
health awareness. So what I do and actually last year when it was Black History Month, they
actually just had an exhibition at the Tate Modern and it was an exhibition of Black Power and
famous people from Black History and their contribution to society. So I simply went along
exhibition and just consumed some of the stuff in exhibition that people have never heard of.
Some people have had heard of and what you’re doing is you’re experiencing things that you
wouldn’t normal experiences. You’re going out of your comfort zone of your in group to get to
know difference basically and you can do that whether it is going to a film screening, going to a
gallery, when it is international women’s day I might go to a talk or a presentation, for LGBT
history month again there is lots of events that go on.
So I would encourage all managers who are leading teams to maybe organize some lunch and
learns so you’re having a lunch and learn. You are doing a Q&A, you can bring in an outside
speaker to talk about their experiences of less being gay by sexual trends or we can bring in a
speaker to talk about their experiences of mental health and what these things do is they’re
designed to raise awareness and we do know that awareness raising can help in terms of again,
building out cultural competences and mitigating some of those stereotypes that we have.
So these exposures if you like to people who are different from us have shown to have some
positive effects in terms of essentially counter stereotyping and what we call bias mitigation.
[0:24:29.7] KV: That is really interesting.
[0:24:30.9] BOK: That is the end of the first part of this conversation. Be sure to check out part
two in the next episode.
[0:24:43.5] BOK: You can get all the links and notes from this episode on
where you can also find out how to send us questions, feedback and get involved in the
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