20210211 Of Bulls and Bias.

3. [un] conscious bias

I like the written word. I can play with words in a visual medium in ways that I can’t aurally. That’s aurally spelt aur.. for those that are listening not reading.

Like the title of this item. How do I tell listeners that there’s word play at work? There is no aural device that accurately reflects the square brackets around the ″un″ part of ″unconscious bias.″ There’s no visual to show ″air quotes″ except a short pause before I say it. That’s fine in the middle of a sentence. Do people recognise that there is an additional fraction of a second pause between sentences? Or that there is a very slightly added emphasis on the ″un″ part of the word?

Well, listeners, there’s a square bracket around the ″un″ part of ″unconscious bias″ in this segment.

Bias is a current favourite of hashtag warriors and the lazy journalists who look no further than twitter for their stories.

The term ″unconscious bias″ has led to the ″stepping aside″ of Bill Michaels,the chairman of KPMG in the UK, according to a report in the Financial Times.

This ″stepping aside″ idea seems to be a recent thing. He’s not suspended, he’s not resigned, he’s just taking leave and making himself available to those conducting an investigation to decide what to do as a result of comments he made during a video conference with staff at the accounting and consultancy company which is not a ″firm″ any longer. [update: Michael has, CNN reports, subsequently said he intends to “leave the firm.”]

Let’s be clear: some of his comments were beyond inappropriate, more suited to dockyard foremen than the besuited leader of a large professional services company. But the story gives us a lot more to think about than one person being a bit of a dick. It even raises questions as to whether he really was being.

First, let’s look at the circumstances of the complaint rather than the complaint itself.

It is the latest in a series of events where those attending on-line meetings have revealed the contents of what are supposed to be private. They call it ″transparency″ but in truth, it’s a breach of trust – and it’s facilitated by the ease with which ″attendance″ rules can be circumvented and that content can be recorded and re-broadcast.

Meetings can have silent watchers – people who are in the room, perhaps even watching on a screen which is, itself, not visible to other participants. And, with readily available free tools, recording what happens on a particular window on a screen, and the sound relating to that channel, is the work of a couple of clicks.

This is something that those who have jumped on the video conferencing bandwagon – those who think it’s ″cool″ have not grasped. They might think they are the smartest person in the room but the room now comprises anyone with a connection.

Those who have banned any kind of recording device and transmitter, including mobile phones, from confidential meetings, who built a faraday cage or who made people put their phones in a biscuit tin by the door have entirely lost their protection. There is no need for criminals to ″war drive″ or to set up complicated tech to ″hear″ the vibrations in window panes. There isn’t even the need to hack into a computer or set up a wire tap. Why? Because now there is a perfect storm in which a culture of loyalty to the company and the boss has been lost to individual interest and any cause any employee – or anyone listening to the meeting – feels justified to reveal to a wider public.

It is easy to become anywhere from mildly irritated to irate about what Michael said. It’s even easy to find it amusing and, to a degree, to agree with him.

Secondly, we live in a world where some people just want to cause trouble.

It is not so easy to realise this: it’s becoming increasingly difficult for managers to be managers when everything they say is subject to scrutiny by people who want to cause trouble.

There are things he must be criticised for – even subject to an investigation for possible prosecution. The Financial Times report says that he admitted to staff in the Financial Services consultancy team that, despite the pandemic, he continued to ″meet clients for coffee″ and said ″I know I’m breaking the law.″

Fine: get him fined. Even get him fired (but they won’t do that because no one gets fired from the top of big consultancies for malfeasance no matter how serious).

But he might just get fired for behaving in a way that buzzword junkies can lock onto.