Does unconscious bias training work? HRM asked two experts with very different opinions on the topic.
His evidence for this?
“After every single unconscious bias training that has ever been done, nothing’s ever improved.”
Michael’s tirade might be misplaced, and was certainly poorly worded, but the sentiment isn’t new.
Academics have struggled to conclude if bias training actually works. A 2015 study found that making people aware of stereotypes, a common exercise in unconscious bias training, can end up condoning them. But a separate study from 2019 found online bias training can be successful, at least sometimes.
So the jury is still out in the academic world, but what about those on the front line? The people whose careers are dedicated to tackling biases. HRM asked two experts what they think – is unconscious bias training worth it?
The argument for
Bron Williams, a corporate bias trainer, says opinions like Michael’s stem from the fact that a lot of organisations aren’t doing the work to make the lessons from unconscious bias training stick.
“Remember when you were at school, you’d take notes in class and then you’d close your book at the end of the day and forget all about what you’d just learnt. That’s what often happens with bias training,” says Williams.
Williams believes unconscious bias training is a worthwhile exercise as it encourages people to slow down and avoid making snap decisions that might not be inclusive.
“It makes you question yourself. Who is impacted? Am I overlooking anything? Do I have enough information to actually make a fair judgement?”
“Just taking time to ask these questions can go a long way to combating some long-held biases.”
Williams is used to having to convince organisations of the benefits of training, and says when it’s implemented properly, the impacts can be life changing. Not just for those in your organisation, but for those who want to be.
She refers to the example of an organisation that asked her to look over its recruitment selection criteria.
The organisation had already ensured the criteria was gender neutral, but Williams noticed the structure of the criteria could be difficult to understand for applicants with English as a second language. She suggested the organisation frame the criteria as questions, instead of statements, to make it easier for people to understand what you’re seeking.
Rather than a line stating: ‘Ability to work in a team’, she suggested the organisation frame it as: ‘When have you had to work in a team?’.
“It can already be difficult to fit your personal experience into a selection criteria, but that’s even more difficult when you need to interpret the literal text, and then interpret what it’s actually asking,” says Williams.
She praises the organisation for seeking out her help and acknowledges that its biases might have been stopping it from finding the best candidates.
Williams acknowledges unconscious bias training won’t solve all diversity issues, but she does think it’s an important starting point.
“We must start with awareness building. Because once you have that, you will begin to think differently and approach other D&I areas with a new perspective.”
The first step to tackling unconscious bias is quality training. AHRI’s Managing Unconscious Bias short course will equip you with the tools to get started.
The argument against
On the other side of the argument is Lisa Annese, CEO of Diversity Council Australia (DCA) who says unconscious bias training “categorically does not work” in and of itself. She believes it should be the beginning of a much bigger process.
Annese argues that unconscious bias training focuses too much on asking people to focus on their implicit responses rather than providing an actionable plan to address diversity and inclusion issues.
The DCA itself provided unconscious bias training, Annese says it’s really only a jumping off point, a “conversation starter”.
“The best way organisations can address change is to build a business argument for it,” she says.
“You have to go through the hard work of engaging with key stakeholders, learning how to build influence, trying to work out what sort of things will challenge the culture, deciding how to measure success. You can’t achieve that in a 90 minute session.”
Annese says bias training attempts to “reprogram people”, which is an inherently difficult task.
“Very occasionally you might get someone that has a light bulb moment and say, ‘oh, I wasn’t even aware I thought that way,’ but that’s about as much as you can expect.”
Ultimately, Annese thinks organisations should be having bigger conversations that extend beyond employees’ implicit beliefs.
“I think unconscious bias training just makes people defensive. All that you can achieve with unconscious bias training is make people aware that bias is an actual thing,” she says.
“Organisations should be spending time actually dismantling those systemic biases. Look at the factors that are leading to the culture of the organisation. How are you managing the talent pipeline? Who do you appoint into leadership positions? That’s the action that could potentially make a difference.”
Are you for or against unconscious bias training? What’s your organisation’s position on it? Let us know in the comment section.