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Talking Unconscious Bias in the Client Corner: Asuragen

Asuragen is a fully integrated diagnostics company developing mRNA-based solutions for molecular oncology and early detection of cancer.

Recently, we spoke with Debra Thompson, VP of HR, to discuss her experience in partnering with Brainard Strategy to conduct Unconscious Bias training with the leaders at Asuragen and, more importantly, why she believed now was the time to provide the training.

WHEN DID YOU FIRST HEAR ABOUT UNCONSCIOUS BIAS?

I first heard of unconscious bias 2-3 years ago when I was doing research at Thermo Fisher Scientific and Life Technologies. We were working on culture, particularly across the globe on how people interact, and teaching some of my team members to be less US centric.

WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO PROVIDE UNCOVERING UNCONSCIOUS BIAS TRAINING TO ASURAGEN NOW?

A couple of things:

  1. Bringing it back up to my conscious level through getting involved with Michael Brainard and Brainard Strategy again by sending our Head of Operations (at the time, he was Head of Development) through the EXCELerate Forum. When I realized there was an Unconscious Bias program, that is what triggered the training. I thought, “This sounds interesting, somebody I know is delivering a program on Uncovering Unconscious Bias.”
  2. We do not live in a vacuum. We have a little microcosm of the world in little Austin, Texas. There has been a lot of conversation due to the political climate and all the things that have been happening. We could see it in terms of what I would call divisive. Not the behavior by our employees, rather, a divisive rhetoric in that we were all trying to think about how we are different regarding our culture. As we refreshed our core values, there was an opportunity to deliver a high-value program that would benefit all our leaders.

HOW HAVE YOUR EXECUTIVES RESPONDED TO THE UNCOVERING UNCONSCIOUS BIAS TRAINING?

They have responded well. We have people who want to dissect the delivery from, “That was very TED talk-y,” to, “Oh, I am really glad that it was scientific-based since we are a scientific-based organization.” Overall, our executives have responded very positively. I think because we are a very data driven organization, we ask ourselves if we are going to get a return on investment. Are we going to leverage some of the topics and nomenclature into future trainings that we are doing around servant leadership? One of the things that continues to percolate around our company is the ‘spiky’ moment. We are using the language, “Oh, I think this is a spiky moment.” Using the terms we all learned is exactly what I was hoping would be an outcome. You can send people to a lot of different trainings. There are a lot of different seminars out there, and a lot of things that you can do. If you try to bring it back to the organization when no one else went through the same training, that is an additional hurdle and it eventually dies. Uncovering Unconscious Bias builds a common vocabulary that we can tie back to our organization as we are continuing to have difficult discussions.

SINCE THE UNCOVERING UNCONSCIOUS BIAS TRAINING, WHAT TYPE OF BEHAVIOR CHANGE HAVE YOU SEEN?

More than anything, there is more awareness. There are more discussions and people are being more thoughtful. In terms of how people make decisions, they are using the term, ‘spiky’ moments. People are thinking about the nuanced ways they communicate when, unless someone put a mirror in front of them, they would have never otherwise thought about this. Really, what is more important, and what I have seen changing, is openness. For example, if I am telling you something, there is more accepting at face value and benefit of the doubt, “I am telling you because I want you to be better.” It is not necessarily changing the behavior or action, it is more around how people receive information and remain open to different points of view in a way that there is appreciation. It is, “I want you to be better and that is why I am telling you this.” It is more about openness.

DID THE UNCONVERING UNCONSCIOUS BIAS TRAINING INITIATE DISCUSSIONS ON CHANGING ANY TIME OF PROCEDURES RELATED TO HIRING, PROMOTION, PERFORMANCE MANAGEMENT?

No change, more just a reaffirmation of the direction in which I wanted to take the organization, which is a strengths-based model. We are not doing score card work. We are saying, “What is it that you do really well, and how can you continue to do well?” Then, again that kind of awareness. I will say, in the 5 to 6 weeks since we have had the training, there has been more awareness around interview panels in making sure we are putting those panels together with cross-functional and diverse team members.  We are making sure we invite the right people in order to ensure we make the right decisions.

WHERE DO YOU SEE UNCONSCIOUS BIAS GOING IN THE FUTURE?

More than anything, my hope is that we build tolerance. I think individuals are so polarized in this society, especially when we politicize every single comment. Dissecting things in terms of intent is so damaging. I would like to see more professional tolerance. What I mean by that is, I hope we continue to talk about Unconscious Bias and that it does not continue to be a black/white, male/female issue.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO ADD ANYTHING?

The only thing I would say is, I thought it was very helpful to learn something to try to be better versus judging other people.