Unconscious bias training: no such thing as a quick fix

by Caroline Waters

Published: 23 Mar 2018

Does unconscious bias training work to create inclusive workplace cultures?

Each of us views the world slightly differently. We are all the product of a complex series of experiences – our family and friends, our home town, our newspaper of choice, or even our favourite films and television programmes.

But what if our view of the world was affecting how we make decisions at work in ways we didn’t know about?

Unconscious bias, or the views and opinions that we are unaware of and affect our everyday behaviour and decision making, is one reason why women, ethnic minorities and disabled people experience pay gaps; why those same groups are less likely to be promoted into senior roles or not recruited at all; and why they are not paid the same as others with the same qualifications and experience.   

Much has been made recently in business, government and HR circles about the need for unconscious bias training as a fix to help employers reduce the negative impact this has at recruitment and selection stages.

So, does unconscious bias training (UBT) actually work?

Our new research aims to unravel this.

Our findings reveal a mixed picture. We found that UBT is most effective for awareness raising, that is, making people aware that unconscious bias exists and the impact it can have.

We also found that UBT can be effective for reducing unconscious bias, but it is unclear how permanent this reduction is. What’s more; our research showed that this type of training is unlikely to eliminate it all together.

Significantly, we also found that there is potential for back-firing effects.

When people taking the training are made aware that they hold biases and alongside that, think that these stereotypes and biases are unchangeable, there may actually be a negative impact on their unconscious biases.

This is potentially worrying if UBT is carried out in isolation from other activity to support people to address bias, as it may be actually reinforcing biases rather than helping to reduce them. This highlights the need for greater evaluation and attention to what really works to make workplaces more inclusive.

But what about changing individuals’ behaviour, changing an organisation’s culture and practices for the good, or making permanent improvements to the workplace?

The evidence base suggests that UBT is not the way to achieve this. And it’s hardly surprising.

Problems that are rooted in societal and economic issues and power imbalances are not easily dismantled – certainly not by a 30 minute online training session. As one of the attendees at our recent roundtable said, ‘UBT is a “foot in the door”, a useful way to start the conversation but not something that is going to sort out your diversity problem on its own’.

But let’s focus on the positives – and there are positives! UBT as one tool for change has real potential and we can strengthen this potential by taking a few simple steps.

Steps to strengthen UBT

1. understanding the problem you are trying to fix

Analysing data such as pay and progression figures is a great way of understanding where employers should focus their activities to improve work for under-represented groups. And it’s likely to be different for each organisation.

For example, some organisations may have a good representation of women at a senior level, but struggle to attract disabled people into their organisation. Or maybe they apply, but aren’t shortlisted.

Management information systems offer lots of potential for insight and can help employers shape UBT to the specific needs or gaps in their organisation.

2. being clear on the aim of UBT and evaluating afterwards

If you’re using UBT, be clear on what you want to get out of it, and measure before and after to see whether you are getting there. Always carry out an evaluation after a UBT intervention.

Make evaluation simple but effective, with clear lead indicators showing whether progress is being made. Only with more evidence-based assessments of UBT and its effectiveness will we start to understand better ‘what works’.

3. seeing UBT as one part of a wider solution

Recognise the limitations of UBT, what it can do and what it’s less likely to. UBT should be treated as just one part of a blended strategy for achieving organisation-wide change.

Think about organisational processes that don’t rely solely on hiring managers changing their existing biases. For recruitment, this might mean applications that focus first and foremost on knowledge and skills, blind applications, and diverse recruitment panels.

Look at culture, embrace professional values that inform what you do, and ensure accountability from leaders for disparities in their organisations.

Through our research, we are hoping to start a conversation about what actually works to reduce bias in our workplaces. So tell me, have you tried UBT in your workplace and experienced any good or bad consequences? I’d love to know and to hear more about how you know whether it has been successful.

The jury is still out on UBT but what we do know is that the best employers recognise that broader measures and wider cultural change is needed to really transform recruitment, pay and progression for protected groups.

If you haven’t yet seen them, I would urge you to take a look at the recommendations which we made last year to help tackle the root causes of pay gaps. We hope this helps employers, who may be worried about their own gender pay gaps as they prepare their report over the next fortnight, come up with a longer-term plan to tackle these root causes.