20210211 Of Bulls and Bias.

Then there’s the fact that the big news is actually the least reported.

The unconscious bias comment is little reported. In fact, it’s mentioned in outrage but in passing. We have not been given context. The criticism is hashtag friendly, twitter-rousing comment that beyond grabbing attention seems to have little or no substance – except for this. With no context it is not impossible to view it as a gratuitous insult. For sure, one person in the meeting is alleged to have responded with “Did Bill Michael say unconscious bias is just crap? Herein lies the issue. Whilst the training may not be effective, to say it doesn’t exist is just reckless.″ Some might question the effectiveness of the commenter’s writing skills. For sure, I do.

I have a different question: why was it a live issue in the first place? Was it as a result of a planted question designed to elicit such a response? The FT says ″Unconscious bias is widely believed to contribute to discrimination against minorities within large corporations.″

Actually, therein lies the issue: the oversimplification, even in such an august publication as the FT, fuels the superficiality that drives hashtag warriors, those for whom rules do not exist unless they define them, for whom social mores are those they choose and no one else’s, for whom any opinion that isn’t theirs is, itself, just crap.

So many questions still. For example, where do we get our unconscious bias? Is it truly unconscious or is it just something we don’t admit to?

We absorb it from the world around us. I studied this phenomenon for many years in relation to suspicion and published my research in Understanding Suspicion in Financial Crime. I didn’t use the emotive expression which is now in common use. I called it ″the people-like-us syndrome.″ It works both ways, for inclusion just as much as for exclusion. And while racism – and religionism, classism and many more – are symptoms, they are not the cause.

That doesn’t trouble those who jump onto a hashtag bandwagon. For them it’s a learned response. They just know that they’ve been told to be irate about something and not to worry, something else will come along in a while. It’s a form of guerilla warfare, an online form of mass demonstrations where no one has to go out in the rain but they can all feel part of something and where, if they hook up a camera and sound suitably outraged, somewhere a TV news channel will let them rant.

It looks like the KMPG/Michaels story is simple. But look into how it arises and it’s far, far from that.

Insofar as the bias is concerned, be it conscious or unconscious, it filters into everything we do from who we socialise with to who we do business with, to who we afford credibility to those that we don’t. Bias is not total: we may be happy to socialise with someone but classify them as a risk we don’t want to take.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority some years ago issued an instruction that a person’s origin must not be allowed to influence decisions as to the opening, operation or closing of an account.

But isn’t that exactly what risk profiling is about? Isn’t that exactly what the FATF requires members to tell its financial services businesses to do?

Isn’t that exactly what regulators have – implicitly if not explicitly required businesses to do for de-risking?

Isn’t it precisely what banks, etc. are forced to do as a result of the extra-territoriality of the USA’s OFAC listings – something that the HKMA earlier said banks must take account of as a regulatory requirement in Hong Kong?

Why are we sceptical of some groups? We aren’t born with prejudice, or are we? Anthropologists argue that favouring people like us is a defence mechanism. We are animals and animals are not naturally all-inclusive.

We have grown up to be tribal. Some tribes are manufactured – for example religions. Some tribes are genetic – we are hard-wired to look for people who are not too different from us. There’s the old thing that many people look like their dogs and that even some couples grow to look like each other as they age.

Similarity brings comfort, for some. I have never lived in a homogenised society: my parents move around every two or three years and although, at that time, the racial mix across most of the UK was predominantly white, the demarcation lines were always there. In the 1970s, in Stockton on Tees, there were two large council (public housing) estates. One was widely seen as superior to the other; its inhabitants more upwardly mobile, to use a phrase that hadn’t arrived at that point. Hardwick good, Ragworth bad. Everything was defined from that point. It was OK to go out with a girl from Hardwick, but not from Ragworth; friends from Ragworth would be trouble makers, friends from Hardwick were likely to be ″nice.″

It was all false, but impressions count. Ragworth was scruffy, a near post-war development of identical houses. And many of its residents were first generation out of the tiny back to back worker’s cottages built for the workers in the heavy industries. They were amongst those that felt the initial brunt of the de-industrialisation of Teesside. They went from just having enough to having nowhere near enough. It was an area where despondency took root before it hit the rest of the town, as it did in the most brutal fashion by the mid-1980s. It was a place of broken down cars that could not be repaired without money, of washing hanging in the front gardens and, most tellingly, of middle-aged, chain-smoking, paisley patterned, big breasted women with their arms crossed as they put the world to rights. Or so the caricaturists would have us believe. They weren’t entirely wrong but they were a long way from right, as I – being the same rebel then as I am now – went out of my way to find out. But what I also found was that, on the other side of that divide, the mistrust and inherent dislike went both ways. I wasn’t welcome there: my car was too nice; my clothes too smart, too modern; my hair was too long and way too clean. I spoke too nicely. Crossing that barrier going either way was made uncomfortable.

Bias works both ways. We should always remember that. There are racists and religionists, fattists and thinnists and even facial-featurists on both sides of the fence.

We should not hold someone up for questioning if it’s a thing. It’s a thing but it’s in all of us.

Can we eradicate it? I really don’t think so. I really don’t think that we can say ″that’s a human therefore I must do everything I can to make it feel comfortable and welcome.″ We all have likes and dislikes. We can get a person thrown off a plane for having UBO but we can be forced to work with that same person every day until one of us leaves?

We all make assumptions: recently someone told me I should learn about victims of trafficking before expressing an opinion. He assumed that because he specialises in it, I have no knowledge or understanding. Wrong. I was dealing with battered wives in the 1970s when I started work in a law firm in my school holidays. In the 1990s, I researched child prostitution in South East Asia for my book ″how not to be a money launderer″ to warn banks of the risks of dealing with child abusers including those providing tourism services; later, I looked at the question of online abuse, available technology and the related money flows and, of course, the trafficking routes and at various times, the press-ganged prostitutes in East London. But I didn’t agree with him on one point so I must be an ignoramus, right?

But that’s why when I teach your staff, I teach them to think. I don’t teach them to remember and regurgitate. I teach them in such a way that they can apply what they learn. Yes, it takes longer; yes it’s a bit more expensive than some others. But what do you want? A tick in a box (yes, they learned everything the need to know from a half-hour video) or that they are as well prepared as we can make them to protect your company against risk and to ensure they are aware of their compliance obligations with context to help them apply them?

And we don’t use acronyms or buzzwords.

How many of you are still puzzling over UBO from a couple of minutes ago?

It stands for Unexplained, or Unpleasant, Body Odour. Did you work it out (which means it distracted you and slowed you down) or did you just ignore it and hope it wasn’t important?