Why Unconscious Bias Training Doesn’t Work

unconscious bias

Inequality exists and is rising all over the world. Even in organisations striving to lead their industries on diversity and inclusion, many “gold standard” interventions are not effectively reducing bias or inequality. 

Various one-off training sessions, such as unconscious bias training, have been the go-to approach in the diversity and inclusion world for decades. Mainly for two reasons: FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) or due to trouble they find themselves in following some very public missteps (as we saw with Starbucks, Sephora, and Papa John’s.) 

However, evidence is mounting that unconscious bias training does not lead individuals or organisations to become less biased or more equitable, and can even have harmful backlash effects. 

What is unconscious bias?

Let’s just start by saying that bias on its own is not bad. In short, it is our unconscious cognitive way of creating shortcuts. The University of Edinburgh explains it in more detail as ‘The tendency of us as humans to act in ways that are prompted by a range of assumptions and biases that we are not aware of. This can include decisions or actions that we are not consciously aware of, as well as hidden influences on decisions and actions that we believe, are rational and based on objective unbiased evidence and experience.’ 

While bias in its own right is nothing bad, the moment bias turns into discrimination, is when we start having some serious problems.

Why does unconscious bias training not work?

As Dr Kristen Liesch, Co-CEO of Tidal Equality and one of Forbes Diversity & Inclusion Trailblazers, explains, unconscious bias training was NOT created as a solution for systematic bias, prejudice and discrimination. Instead, you see these training sessions targeting individuals and their ingrained worldviews and unconscious cognitive shortcuts and fail to provide the systematic context of where it lives. 

As with any other training, e.g., Cyber Security: ‘how not to get hacked and stay safe online’ or H&S: ‘how to lift a heavy object correctly’, unconscious bias training is equally a risk-mitigation and compliance tool. And so, unconscious bias training was not designed by people who experienced and understood discrimination, but by corporate lawyers with the intent of protecting their organisations from litigation.

There are many reasons why unconscious bias training doesn’t work. One of them is that these training sessions or workshops do not talk about WHAT WORKS when it comes to achieving less biased, more equitable and lasting behaviour change. Secondly, they are targeted at the individual rather than the system as a whole, so they do not achieve the change we need to see.

The Behavioural Insights Team commissioned by the Government Equalities Office and published by the Houses of Parliament found that “there is currently no evidence that this training changes behaviour in the long term or improves workplace equality in terms of representation of women, ethnic minorities or other minority groups” and sometimes had unintended “negative consequences”.

Alastair Pringle, executive director at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), reflected on EHRC 2018 report on unconscious bias training saying: “Our research found that this training was not the best way to change an organisation’s culture, individuals’ behaviours, or make permanent improvements to the workplace. Employers have to think about their structures and processes too.”

What unconscious bias training in the workplace can do, however, is to create awareness of personal unconscious biases. So, if your goal is for your employees and leaders to learn more about discrimination, biases and stereotyping then run an unconscious bias training, as it is a good tool for delivering information. However, keep in mind that there is no evidence that awareness leads to behaviour change, as you cannot ‘train’ the bias out of people. It is like expecting people to suddenly turn to a healthy and active lifestyle after one nutrition seminar. However, if you want your organisation to become more equitable, inclusive and diverse – unconscious bias training is not the solution you’re looking for. 

What can you do?

To maximize the impact of any diversity and inclusion training, it is important to assess other company practices, hold upper management accountable for driving change, and the training job and/or industry-specific.

  1. Understand your ‘why’ for running any kind of training session. What is the end goal for it? What impact would you like to see it create? That will inform whether it is a basic unconscious bias training you want, or something more structured and impactful.
  2. Make unconscious bias training part of a wider program of change. Moreover, make it an internal initiative, i.e., driven by management rather than a result of external events – public demonstrations and unrests or a lawsuit. Studies show internal motivation for such change is better accepted and adopted.
  3. Invite people from across the organisation to (anonymously) share their observations or experiences of inequity and bias and empower them to be part of designing the solution. 
  4. Pull together a pool of enthusiastic change-makers, equip them with the appropriate skills and get them to dig into the design of products, services, processes, policies, systems, communications etc. and reveal opportunities for redesign to invite greater equity and inclusion and less bias. A note to make here is that it is important not to make this a side-project but instead tie it into their appraisals and remuneration. 
  5. Create formal two-way or reverse mentoring programs that pair existing managers with people in different departments, who seek mentoring and sponsorship. This helps with opening two-way conversations between people, who usually do not work together, identify high potential and creates space for storytelling and building mutual empathy.

As former KPMG boss, Bill Michael infamously said (before he resigned) “There is no such thing as unconscious bias. I don’t buy it, because, after every single unconscious bias training that has ever been done, nothing’s ever improved.” And there may have been a shade of truth there: one-off training sessions don’t address systematic issues.

We are seeing a trend to explore bias in a curated training environment rather than trying to establish cultural change within companies, which would in the long term lead to better outcomes. We need to sharpen our focus on implementing and measuring what actually matters and challenge the status quo. Unconscious bias training is useful, but it’s not the answer.

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