Diversity & Inclusion, Learning & Development

Why Unconscious Bias Training May Not Help

Unconscious bias training, also known as implicit bias training, is a means to help employees identify and understand the underlying biases we all harbor. The deeper intent behind the training is to help employees to improve their actions by recognizing their biases and not acting upon them when they arise.

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Employers typically implement this type of training to:

  • Try to reduce discriminatory actions and behaviors.
  • Try to increase diversity and inclusion.
  • Try to reduce racism in the workplace.
  • Try to promote open conversations about problematic issues to talk about them in a way that produces changes in behavior.

These are all noble, but the catch is, we haven’t stopped to ask whether this type of training actually accomplishes any of them. Studies are showing it might not.

Why Unconscious Bias Training May Not Help

Here are a few reasons this type of training may not be as useful as we’d like:

  • Pointing out biases doesn’t actually change actions. In other words, even if we are aware of our biases, that doesn’t mean we will start to act differently without more effort. Knowing what to do and actually doing it are very different things.
  • Just learning about our biases doesn’t suddenly make individuals more open-minded to new ideas or to changing these beliefs.
  • Many of our biases are not unconscious—they’re explicit, even if we don’t want to admit that out loud. Often, people are quite aware of these beliefs and even embrace them. Many stereotypes are ingrained through reinforcement from peers and family over many years.
  • It’s typically set up as mandatory training, but if people aren’t invested in the training, they may be less likely to be attentive and focused.
  • This type of training is often conducted in a single session, but a single session is never going to be enough to combat years—or perhaps decades—of ingrained beliefs.
  • Studies indicate that our unconscious biases actually don’t impact our behaviors that much. People who actually do things that are discriminatory are rarely acting purely from an unconscious bias. Therefore, making people aware of them may have very little impact on behavior.
  • This type of training may actually make people think more about their assumptions, in turn, making them even more likely to overcompensate, which isn’t necessarily a better outcome. This situation can even make biases more overt when it’s obvious you’re trying to compensate for them.
  • People don’t often act on their biases. They even tend to suppress their own wants at work. We all accommodate bosses or frustrating coworkers, which shows we’re capable of suppressing things. Studies indicate that even for those with racist or sexist attitudes, the majority keep them in check in the workplace, even without implicit bias training.

This type of training is often suggested as a reaction to a problem or in defense of a future problem. It ticks the box indicating the employer is taking some form of action against discriminatory behavior, even if it isn’t very effective.

Instead, it’s suggested that organizations take concrete steps to reduce the actual behaviors that are problematic. Change company policies to make decisions fairer from the start. Review and update policies that may result in biased actions. Start by making the types of changes that take biases out of decision-making as a first step.

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.