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Debate: Does Unconscious Bias Training Work?
CTDO Magazine

Debate: Does Unconscious Bias Training Work?

Friday, September 14, 2018

The argument: Unconscious bias training leads to effective behavioral changes.

More and more, organizations are pushing for diverse and inclusive work environments. Through unconscious bias training, they are tackling negative mindsets and prejudices that employees and managers aren't aware they have. But is this effective? And should companies continue to pursue these training efforts or look to other means to encourage truly diverse and inclusive environments?



Yolanda Fraction

Owner, Fraction Learning & Development

What are the benefits of a strong diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy? It enables organizations to perform better due to a diverse pool of talent at high levels of on—the—job performance. Further, teams make improved decisions, challenge old ways of thinking, and produce more accurate results. But do we also have biases? Do we prefer to be around people who think, look, and behave like us? It is critical that organizations consider preconceived notions and question assumptions as they strive to foster D&I in the workplace.

Unconscious bias training—when combined with a strong D&I strategy—enables organizations to be innovative and successful and to thrive in an ever—changing and competitive global community. However, it must not stand alone. Managers, individual contributors, and senior leaders all have a role in developing an inclusive environment. Remember, training is an event, but learning is a continuous process. A strong learning organization does not rely on a one—time event to create an inclusive environment. A full or half day of high—quality, instructor—led unconscious bias training is a great way to launch a larger conversation about the organization's commitment to D&I.

Bersin's Enterprise Learning Framework describes training as one component or activity within the larger framework of a high—impact learning organization. I can't emphasize enough that the organizational culture must support and be the lifeline for these activities. If we seek to change behavior, we must not rely solely on an online learning module or instructor—led training.

Deloitte research identifies HR—led activities such as unconscious bias training and the creation of employee resource groups as a Level 2 programmatic component within the four levels of D&I maturity. Training can be asynchronous (on demand) or synchronous (live), virtual or face—to—face. However, a static, 45—minute lecture on unconscious bias training certainly will not do. And, when done poorly, this type of low—quality training will give unconscious bias training a bad name.

Additionally, avoid making D&I training compulsory. It is necessary to have formal HR policies, procedures, and practices in place to prevent instances that require mandatory unconscious bias training, but by proactively creating an inclusive workplace, organizations can avoid being reactive and falling into the realm of compliance training.

How do we ensure that true behavioral and organizational change occurs? High—quality, unconscious bias training must place the learner at the center of all activities that will occur. This does not happen by sitting in a seven—hour, lecture—based training course. Learners will come out not only bored but unchanged. Facilitators should consider using a validated, research—based tool such as Harvard University's Project Implicit as prework, encouraging learners to examine their biases before attending the training event.

Again, organizations must be proactive; it's critical that they ask why before going down a rabbit hole that leads to simply checking off a box that task X is complete. L&D activities, including unconscious bias training, are effective when organizations embed them within the very thought of organizational activities and strategic plans. This should also be an ongoing experience that includes a deep level of commitment, intention, and engagement to achieving an organizational vision and strategic outcomes.


Tamara Kravitz

Senior Training Director, Cybervance


Corporations are conducting training to educate and prevent stereotyping and business decisions based on unconscious biases—when decisions or actions are influenced sublimely by previous experiences. Yet, for several reasons, I don't believe in unconscious bias training in the workforce. I have been part of a workforce training initiative and have not seen any proof that it works.

Unconscious bias training is often reactive, meaning that an organization has only instituted the training because of a complaint or legal action. It rolls out a 45—minute online training course and checks the box that all employees were trained and are now in compliance. But what did the employees learn from the course? Does it actually support a culture of caring about employees or business—facing public relations?

Unconscious bias training can be misguided and ineffective because it is still so controversial in scientific circles. For example, the training solution I was a part of had no clear methods for measuring learning outcomes from the course. How would the organization know that the 45—minute online training course worked without any learning evaluation?

Further, emphasizing unconscious bias can—in some corporations—contribute to the toxic work environment and may reinforce stereotypes. Because users are being presented with stereotypes and told explicitly to avoid them, their nature may be to fight against what they've been told and reinforce whatever stereotypes they have. Staff may likewise be worried that if they say the wrong thing, they will be denounced, ostracized, or fired. And it can create an us—versus—them environment when it should really focus on we.

Due to the broad topic of unconscious bias, there is no way to focus on specific issues without singling people out. For instance, unconscious bias training emphasizes groups or clubs, such as bimonthly Latino, women's, or Asian group meetings. The training solution promotes these groups to honor diversity and inclusion in the workplace, but in reality, they cultivate a culture of separation. How do you create homogeny when actively separating people into groups? I don't believe that these should be hosted in the workplace.

The results of unconscious bias training are also unreliable. Organizations often evaluate a training course with a self—administered survey. Changes could be due to learning the program goals and understanding the questionnaire rather than a change in prejudice attitudes and beliefs. How does a company know whether this is a continued effort benefiting employees in the workplace? How does it track learning progress or changed behaviors?

Unconscious bias training doesn't work because it's difficult for individuals to catch themselves doing something unconsciously—even if they know better. Everyone is unconsciously biased. It's difficult to change minds and perspectives. The most effective strategies focus on changing processes, not changing minds, and the first step to change a behavior is awareness. But how can someone be aware of things done unconsciously?

Unconscious bias training can also lead to an illusion of fairness. If the training solution is implemented, people in the organization may have the perception that inequality is not a problem, when in fact, it may still be. Unconscious bias training wastes time, resources, and employee engagement.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

With a graduate degree in adult and organizational learning from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in integrative studies in education from George Mason University, Yolanda seeks to create social and behavioral change, improving on-the-job performance. She uses learning and workforce development as a vehicle to enable adults throughout the globe to become their best selves. Over the past 12 years, she has worked with for-profit and not-for-profit organizations to foster intellectual curiosity, curate meaningful learning experiences and use development as a vehicle to empower people to achieve their greatest potential. She is the owner of Fraction Learning & Development.

About the Author

Tamara is the senior training director at Cybervance Inc., since November 2017. She is responsible for L&D, including the roll-out of numerous online courses, webinars and instructor-led training; infographics; and more. Tamara is an expert in gamification, learning strategies, adult learning principles, and learning manager systems. Tamara has more than 15 years of instructional design and learning management. Tamara holds a Masters of Instructional Technology from Towson University and a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Visual Arts from University of Maryland Baltimore County. She has traveled around the world conducting training and speaking engagements at various learning industry wide events.

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