Unconscious bias training: What you need to know before you start

Author: Gareth Buchanan

Unconscious bias training has been part of the diversity and inclusion practitioners' toolkit for a number of years, but criticism from both sides of the political spectrum has many questioning its impact on our rights, workplaces and communities. In the first of two articles, Gareth Buchanan shares his views on why unconscious bias training has been making headlines of its own.

Can a diversity and inclusion consultant write an article about bias, without bias?

It's a funny thing bias. We all comprehend its impact on us and others differently. Our comprehension is often based on our immutable characteristics, our experiences, our knowledge and our privilege. Assessing its role in society, and in our daily interactions, is fraught with difficulty, and, well, bias.

Analysing bias on an individual basis is complex and takes time, education, commitment and desire. From a political, or organisational perspective, it takes so much more. In 2021 it is hard to be completely objective about many things, but bias divides opinion like few subjects can.

Additional resources

Line manager briefing: Unconscious bias

Podcast: How do you create a more racially diverse and inclusive workplace?

When unconscious bias training (UBT) entered the public arena in 2014, as Google announced that all their employees would undertake their version of the training, it did so to almost universal praise. Only a minority said that organisations' efforts would be better served focusing on instances of actual conscious bias and discrimination.

Fast forward only seven years and search engine results for UBT are generally less positive. UBT is still making headlines, but for very different reasons.

With politicians and media commentators increasingly referencing UBT publicly, and seldom in a positive or completely accurate light, alongside more people experiencing it through light touch e-learning workplace solutions, as opposed to classrooms and workplace transformations, one has to wonder if the UBT brand can survive.

How then should organisations ensure that their UBT efforts are above reproach, and most importantly, help to reduce the impact of both conscious and unconscious bias?

Start by focusing on the real challenges

The fairest challenge to the proliferation of UBT in our workplaces, is that employees and customers do not suffer only from others' unconscious, or implicit, biases. They have to negotiate others' conscious biases, systemic bias, outright discrimination, victimisation, and exclusion. Culminating in reduced opportunities, less pay and increased instances of bullying, harassment, hate crimes and worse.

Despite there being legislation, policies and safeguarding in place, the reality is that not enough is done to apply those existing standards properly, consistently or fairly.

In that position, and given a say, UBT would probably not be the first thing many would ask or recommend organisations to focus on.

UBT is designed to complement, or refine, a much broader employment, diversity and inclusion strategy. While a multi-faceted approach to inclusion is always welcome, organisations may want to ensure that they are focused on meeting their most basic employment and legal responsibilities before exploring supplementary approaches.

Employers have long been aware of the reputational damage that comes with being found guilty, by an employment tribunal, or by the court of public perception, when faced with accusations of inequality. That so many employment disputes end in out of court settlements, only feeds public perception that employers are happy to talk about diversity and inclusion when it is positive, but would rather brush it under the rug when the talking gets tough.

Remember that UBT is not a tick-box exercise or a "Get out of jail free" card

For years now people have looked for ways to make themselves and their enterprises appear more official and more attractive to the public; without doing the work that earns such a reputation. Since Pride parades have become commonplace, so too have accusations that businesses that show their support are doing so to attract the pink-pound only.

The legacy of that behaviour means that in 2021, businesses and leaders need to demonstrate that they are "walking the talk" in relation to all inclusion efforts, not just UBT. Telling people that you are training your employees is not enough; people now want to know how you are training them, and how they will be using that training to make a difference. They want to know how their new knowledge will measurably improve behaviours, understanding, processes, services and products. And they want to know how those improvements resolve their frustrations at doing business with you.

Address that politically incorrect elephant in the room

Criticism of initiatives like UBT, from some politicians and commentators, appears to boil down to the fact that some believe that freedom of speech (the freedom to say what they want, how they want, when they want, to whom they want) should trump being told by employers/leaders/authorities what is, and is not, acceptable, in certain situations.

And that UBT training is effectively a politically-correct rule book that is being forced on everyone, compelling us to behave and speak a certain way when faced with people who are different from us.

The challenge with this criticism is that it does not accurately reflect the reality of what UBT training is designed to achieve. UBT training is about understanding ourselves better, and in turn, understanding others.

From the criticism I have reviewed, it largely fails to address four key issues, namely that:

  1. Businesses have a legal and moral responsibility to protect their employees and customers from bullying, harassment and discrimination.
  2. High numbers of customers and employees increasingly choose to do business with, and work for, inclusive organisations.
  3. Freedom of speech has never meant freedom from consequence.
  4. Organisations have a legal right to protect their reputation.

By addressing conversations about the role of bias, how it is represented in the media, and the role of employers and service providers in protecting their people and their brands, businesses may face a tough task to engage with employees who may not want to be swayed. Failing to have those conversations, however, simply means accepting the status quo, and potentially allowing those misconceptions to grow.

Read Gareth's second article on the practical steps that your organisation can take to make your unconscious bias training a success.