Does Unconscious Bias Training Work? It Depends.
Does Unconscious Bias Training Work? It Depends.

Across the world, people are showing a desire to root out inequality and discrimination. Political and corporate leaders are stepping up to offer change – with varying results.

As one positive example, Google announced USD 175 million in funding to support racial equality and Black entrepreneurs. At the other end of the spectrum, the CEO of Adidas stepped down after opining that the topic of racism was “noise”.

After the initial media storm, the responsibility now falls on HR to develop meaningful diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives with a vision for the future.

The data clearly shows that boosting D&I is good for business. If a company’s demographics reflect the wider society, this is a “clear competitive advantage”, concluded a recent panel of D&I experts hosted by SHRM. Yet many companies are not managing to significantly improve their D&I metrics (even Google). The problems are deep-rooted.

How should HR departments rise to the challenge now? How can you go beyond isolated well-meaning gestures and achieve change?

One of the key actions HR and L&D leaders can take is unconscious bias training. This can be a meaningful intervention that helps change the culture. However, not all trainings are the same.


How to approach unconscious bias training

After a race-related incident in 2018, Starbucks apologised and closed 8,000 stores to engage 175,000 employees in a one-day anti-bias training. While the company was quick to take action, in 2020, that would not be enough. A one-day training is unlikely to significantly change employees’ behaviour.

Corporate leaders should strive for long-term change, rather than just react to the latest incident. “It’s been great to see these letters from the CEO. It’s been great to see people’s social media messages. But what’s the next step? Companies need to first look internally and examine their own corporate policies, and ensure that their values reflect what they’re saying to their employees,” shared entrepreneur Dilan Gomih at a panel hosted by the Wall Street Journal.

Reducing bias and dismantling inequality is an ongoing practice. It is now HR’s responsibility to show that the organisation is committed to change for the long haul.

Recurring trainings and a commitment to D&I on part of leadership are essential. Beyond that, what matters most is the trainings’ content and design.

Actionable, bite-sized lessons are more likely to be applied in the flow of work. Additionally, to change the culture, anti-bias initiatives should engage management as well as employees.


Use reward

Unconscious bias is particularly difficult to change, as it is, well, unconscious. Simply making people aware that they have biases does not influence the way they behave, according to a research report by the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI). Training should focus on changing people’s actions.

One way to do so is to use reward. Employees should be commended for recognising that they have made an error. If bias has negatively affected someone, you can use restorative justice to remedy that. The process of reconciliation deepens the relationship of the people involved in the incident, and they should be rewarded for engaging in it.

Positive feedback strongly influences behaviour and should be part of your anti-bias toolkit.


Institute clear decision-making protocols

Bias training should not be limited only to employees, but should include middle and top management. To achieve equity on a bigger scale, you need to give leaders the tools to act in a reasoned and just way, emphasises the NLI report.

Clear policies lead to more objective decision-making. For example, transparency about the criteria for promotions builds trust. “If-then plans”, for example, can reduce bias in difficult situations. Trainings for managers should show them how to apply these principles in practice.


Teach simple brain hacks

Both employees and management can benefit from learning simple actions they can practise in their day-to-day work to combat bias. NLI suggests the following hacks:

  • When making decisions about allocating resources, imagine you are deciding for someone else. How would that change your actions?
  • Act as if the people affected are closely related to you. This can prevent treating certain people as outside your in-group.
  • Take a break. A stressed, tired mind is more likely to resort to bias as a shortcut. Stepping away and coming back to a problem tends to lead to better solutions.


Read: Are Diversity and Inclusion Good for Business?


From D&I to better organisations

The public is aware that unequitable treatment is setting back not just individuals, but entire organisations and societies. Imagine what your organisation would be like if people made decisions based on data, not bias. Operations would be more efficient and this would affect the bottom line. People’s potential for innovation would be unleashed as ideas and proposals that deviate from the status quo are no longer underrated.

In 2020, it is clear that D&I is not a concern for a subset of employees with a certain identity or background. It is an important part of the culture, as well as a business strategy. All people have biases but, in a thriving organisation, their actions are guided by thoughtful policies, and they are rewarded for positive change. It is time for HR and L&D leaders to go beyond one-off actions and to institute comprehensive programmes to promote inclusion and innovation.


To learn more about the challenges HR and L&D professionals are facing, claim your complimentary pass to the MERIT European Summit in Paris on 18 September – “Rethinking Learning in a Connected World”. This boutique event for CHROs and CLOs is co-hosted by LinkedIn. Places are limited – reserve yours now.


By Ani Kodjabasheva