The truth about unconscious bias training

Liberty Martin DiversityQ Journalist

Liberty Martin is the US correspondent and columnist for DiversityQ. She is also a student at Columbia University and has written and produced podcasts for the Financial Times.

When a Starbucks manager needlessly called the police on two black men, the multinational coffee shop decided to make a change with unconscious bias training for nearly 175,000 of its employees.

Unconscious bias training aims to reduce prejudice in the workplace by teaching participants about the decisions and assumptions we make without realising every day.  A popular method for company diversity and inclusion initiatives, businesses like Google, Facebook and maybe even the company you work for use it.

But does unconscious bias training actually work?

Unconscious bias training does increase motivation to improve diversity among employees. Paradigm, an inclusion consulting firm, and Google found that employees are far more likely to want to reduce workplace bias after taking training.

But, although giants like Facebook and Google champion unconscious bias training, we don’t know how effective it is. The Equality and Human Rights Commission found “mixed evidence” that the training is effective and no evidence that it reduces bias so that participants are neutral. The American Sociological Review found that diversity training for managerial bias was the “least effective” in improving diversity.

It’s also important to note that not all unconscious bias training programs are created equal. Training can be in-depth workshops or hour-long interactive talks, but they can also be quick Powerpoint presentations. Obviously, one will glean more results than the other.

So what’s the way forward?

Training can only make us aware of bias, not wave a magic wand to get rid of it. If women and minorities have been excluded from the workforce for years, then an unconscious bias training course won’t change much. But, we can pair training with other D&I initiatives to truly create a diverse and inclusive workplace. Here are three methods that are more effective than unconscious bias training:

  1. Establish responsibility and accountability for diversity
  2. Pair unconscious bias training with action
  3. Mentoring

Establish responsibility and accountability for diversity

The American Sociological Review found business structures that established responsibility for diversity (such as quotas, diversity committees, and diversity staff positions) were much more effective in increasing diversitythan unconscious bias training. In fact, established responsibility improved the effects of unconscious bias training and mentoring

See also: Want to engage more talented women in 2018? Start by being honest

Pair unconscious bias training with action

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Paradigm CEO Joelle Emerson said that unconscious bias training must equip participants with action-oriented strategies”. Training alone is not enough. Emerson points to asking participants to consider different hiring methods like structured interviews (asking each interviewee the exact same question) as well as inclusion strategies to move unconscious bias from training to the real world

See also: What is diversity without inclusion?

Mentoring

Studies have found that mentoring is a great way to increase diversity numbers. Not only are mentees given the tools and insight to progress, but mentors also invest in members of diverse communities, genuinely challenging their unconscious biases

Unconscious bias training can be an important but initial step

We all need to be aware of how we can subconsciously make decisions that exclude others. After all, to solve a problem you must diagnose it first. To create a diverse and inclusive workforce and workspace, we should make active efforts like mentoring or diversity committees to truly tackle our unconscious biases.