Diversity & Inclusion, Learning & Development

Unconscious Bias Training Isn’t Just a Tick-the-Box Activity

Proponents of unconscious bias training argue that unconscious bias not only is present in all of us but also can and does have big impacts on how businesses treat employees and customers. High-profile racial incidents impacting big brands and the dearth of women and people of color in prominent roles in many industries are often cited as examples of unconscious bias and its impacts.

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Critics of unconscious bias training don’t necessarily disagree with the existence or impacts of unconscious bias; however, they question the effectiveness of training to address it.

As Christine Ro writes in an article for BBC Worklife, “[A]lthough this kind of training may be well-intended, a significant body of research suggests that it has limited effects on changing beliefs in the long term, or improving representation of minority groups in the workplace. In the worst cases, the training can backfire – making participants feel that they don’t need to worry about bias anymore because they’ve done the training, or teaching them that such bias can never be eradicated.”

While there are certainly legitimate issues with the effectiveness of unconscious bias training, that doesn’t mean such training should be dismissed out of hand. The problem is not necessarily with the concept itself but rather with how unconscious bias training is executed in practice. While one-off unconscious bias trainings may be useful for raising awareness, that’s really about it. Awareness itself is certainly a plus, particularly with under-the-radar issues like unconscious bias, but most organizations want more out of their unconscious bias training. That really means they need to put more into it.

“If a company wants to increase representation of minorities in senior management, then relying on bias training alone is likely to fail – and to give employees a sour experience of diversity initiatives,” writes Ro. She stresses that training needs to be part of an integrated process and says that organizations must be willing to invest in this process. “A 30- or 60-minute training session can’t begin to compete with a lifetime of absorbed prejudice and structural inequalities, after all,” she writes.

Unconscious bias training has ebbed and flowed in popularity in recent years. While many companies recognize the harm unconscious bias can do, they have been underwhelmed by the results of their efforts at tackling it. The problem likely lies in an underwhelming effort put into unconscious bias trainings. Treating these efforts as a one-off, tick-the-box activity may raise awareness of the issue, but it is likely to have little, if any, real impact on the organization.