Unconscious, or implicit, bias in the workplace has been recognized as a pervasive force within many organizations that results in decisions that serve to favor one group or individual over another—not with intent, but quite innocently. Recognizing unconscious bias as a driver that can lead to claims of discrimination or disparate treatment, organizations have been offering unconscious bias training in an effort to help employees, and especially managers and senior leaders, recognize their own unconscious biases and take steps to minimize or overcome them.
Does Unconscious Bias Training Work in the Office?
Failure to Drive Behavior Change
In an article for Harvard Business Review, researchers shared the results of a scientific experiment designed to measure the impact of diversity training. It worked like this: The two bias-focused trainings opened with noted experts explaining the psychological processes that underlie stereotyping and how they can lead to inequity in the workplace. An Implicit Association Test was next: participants reflected on their existing unconscious biases. Then they learned strategies to overcome bias and stereotyping in common workplace practices (e.g., reviewing resumes, conducting performance evaluations, and connecting with colleagues) and had the chance to practice using them. A control group was used to compare results.
The results: “We found very little evidence that diversity training affected the behavior of men or white employees overall—the two groups who typically hold the most power in organizations are often the primary targets of these interventions.”
Wharton professors have also researched online diversity training. They looked specifically at online unconscious bias training that addresses gender stereotypes. And they reached a conclusion that we have also drawn based on our own work with organizations: “Although we find evidence of attitude change and some limited behavior change as a result of our training, our results suggest that the one-off diversity trainings that are commonplace in organizations are not panaceas for remedying bias in the workplace.”
A New Way of Approaching Unconscious Bias Training
The reasons that typical unconscious bias training doesn’t work are quite similar to the reasons why other types of workplace training—like traditional sexual harassment training—although widespread for many years, fail to achieve the intended results of improving workplace culture.
- As the Wharton study and our own work suggest, one-off unconscious bias training initiatives simply do not drive real change. Raising awareness of, and minimizing unconscious bias, requires a culture shift and ongoing support, education, and reinforcement to drive real change.
- Most unconscious bias training is framed from a negative point-of-view—not “here are the behaviors you can exhibit to help drive an inclusive culture,” but “here is a list of things that you should not do, of you’ll be in big trouble.”
- The focus of typical unconscious bias training is on meeting legal requirements rather than how being aware of unconscious bias and supporting inclusive leadership can benefit the employee and the workplace as a whole.
- Employees aren’t engaged in the process. Unconscious bias training isn’t something that’s delivered to employees from the HR or training department. It’s a collaborative endeavor to shift thinking and impact behaviors to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.
- Managers aren’t engaged in the process and aware of the role they can play in unconscious bias training; they can be a powerful element of any unconscious bias training initiative but they must provide support and reinforcement of the principles covered once employees are back on the job. In addition, they need to play a role in identifying incidents where unconscious bias in the workplace has come into play—sharing and communicating about those issues with employees.
One critical employee role that we emphasize is that of being a good bystander. What does that mean? It means that employees need to be enlisted in helping to spread information and taking an active role in stepping up when they see issues of harassment or unconscious bias in the workplace. Providing employees with the knowledge to spot instances of unconscious bias, the tools and training to serve in a bystander role, and the messages that can help support minimizing unconscious bias in the workplace can effectively elicit their support for promoting a respectful culture.
So, Does Unconscious Bias Training Work?
Yes, but only if it is part of an ongoing, strategic initiative to build a supportive workplace culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our courses have a streamlined user experience, contain unconscious bias training exercises designed to engage all your employees, and ensure learner comprehension by tracking progress at every step.