For several years organisations have been rolling out unconscious bias training for their employees. Aimed at tackling discrimination, the training has now come under fire from The Race Commission. Is unconscious bias training effective? What are the concerns?
Unconscious Bias Training is aimed at educating people about their natural, subliminal biases that may influence decisions they make at work.
A typical instance is in recruitment. Humans subconsciously seek out similarities between themselves and others, helping to build relationships. This can lead us to award a job to someone who is most like us, rather than the person who has the best skills for the role.
It is also thought that general stereotyping can influence decision-making. The factors influencing unconscious bias are typically focused on social class, race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender, and nationality.
Unconscious Bias Training comes in various forms, all focused on educating people about this bias and giving them the tools to make more rational, objective decisions.
Training might involve association tests, where you’re presented with a quickfire series of images, and have to make rapid judgements of them, e.g. ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘good’, ‘bad’. It could be presentation-based or involve roleplay as a hiring manager.
In the UK, unconscious bias training has come under fire recently, notably in a damning report from the Race Commission.
The Commission called for organisations to move away from this form of training. Its report stated:
‘The existing training should be replaced with new interventions that when implemented, can be measured or evaluated for their efficacy, such as the use of sponsorship to ensure wider exposure of ethnic minority individuals to their peers, managers and other decision makers.’
The suggestion is that Unconscious Bias Training leads people to overcompensate and can result in ‘box ticking exercises’ that don’t get results.
Instead, the Race Commission recommends funding be diverted to developing core skills that could benefit disadvantaged employees.
Previous research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that while unconscious bias training can be effective for reducing implicit bias, it is unlikely to eliminate it. Limited evidence was found as to whether the training can successfully change behaviours, although it is useful in raising awareness.
A number of government departments phased out unconscious bias training in 2020 having found that it did not stamp out workplace prejudices. But many taxpayer-funded bodies such as the Met Police, NHS and BBC are still implementing unconscious bias training for staff.
So should you be providing Unconscious Bias Training to your workforce? It’s certainly too simplistic to say that Unconscious Bias Training doesn’t work. General awareness of unconscious bias is helpful, as it is not necessarily something people know about.
The challenge is in delivering something that will actually change behaviour and get results. Rather than implementing a one-off training session, it is more important to tackle bias in the workplace from a fundamental level.
Diminishing bias starts with your diversity and inclusion policy, and making sure this is fully embedded in company culture, the hiring process and day-to-day operations. You can assess the success of your cultural diversity by looking at the senior management team. Do they represent a range of backgrounds and characteristics?
The Confederation of British Industry summed up this position well: ‘Unconscious bias training can be part of a company’s inclusion strategy, but it’s not a guarantee of success and certainly isn’t sufficient by itself.
‘The Race Commission is right to highlight the importance of businesses doing more than just training, including interventions like sponsorship, mentoring and reverse mentoring.’