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Critics admit that unconscious bias training on its own is not enough to stop discrimination

Both behavioural scientists and equality campaigners agree that stand-alone training sessions simply do not work when it comes to unconscious bias.

When Bill Michael, former boss at KPMG resigned he ignited an ongoing debate about equality in the workplace. Michael resigned for telling staff to ‘stop playing the victim card.’ He went further as to describe unconscious bias as ‘complete and utter crap.’

Michael stated that he did not buy the concept of unconscious bias, in fact after every unconscious bias training (UBT) session that had ever been carried out, there was never any improvement.

Unwittingly Michael may have hit a nerve and touched on a truth about this sensitive subject. Studies have in fact shown the prevalence of discrimination and bias in the workplace which is not improved after one-off training sessions.

Data has shown that even with 81% of companies carrying out unconscious bias training there was little if any confidence among leaders about the effectiveness of the sessions. Training alone is not enough to ensure a fair and consistent process.

Many behavioural scientists and equality campaigners agree that UBT should be a part of many steps which companies take to address diversity issues.

From 250 businesses who were polled by recruitment firm Arctic Shore, only three in four companies regularly review diversity hiring processes. Just 25% rated unconscious bias as their number one challenge when recruiting staff.

With the Black Lives Matter movement being catapulted to the top of the news agendas one year ago, Arctic Shores chief executive Robert Newry commented that it was a positive change to see companies agreeing that their top priority was to remove unconscious bias.

Newry said that the survey went further in that it showed the problem between company training courses and the realistic delivery of objectives.

Currently, said Newry, there is a trend to explore unconscious bias in training sessions rather than to establish change within the workplace. Establishing cultural change would lead to better long-term outcomes.

‘There needs to be more focus on things that actually take place, and then challenge the old method of hiring.’

Hannah Burd, principal advisor at the government’s behavioural insights team (BIT) agreed with these sentiments. Last year her team conducted a research review to analyse the effectiveness of unconscious bias training.

This review showed that there is no evidence which categorically shows that one-off training sessions changed behaviour in the long run. Neither did they improve equality in the workplace when considering the representation of women, ethnic and other minority groups. Sometimes the sessions had negative consequences.

In December 2020, the civil service scrapped UBT. They urged other employers in the public sector to do the same.

Ms Burd told the Guardian newspaper that unconscious bias training is one of the most frequently used actions that companies take to improve equality. Evidence, however, shows that it is not effective.

She asked the question as to whether in companies where unconscious bias training took place, more women and minorities were hired. Ms Burd also stated that there was a lack of research into UBT and the effects it had on staff.

The studies carried out by BIT showed that while some types of unconscious bias training had limited positive effects, there was no evidence to show that behaviour changes were made in workplaces.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) also carried out a report in 2018 which revealed that the training could have ‘mixed effects.’

Executive director at EHRC Alastair Pringle said their research showed that one-of training was not the best way to try to change a company’s culture or the behaviour of individuals. Neither did it make for permanent improvements in the workplace.

For change to take place employers need to also consider their structures and processes.

Mr Pringle gave an example where in the recruitment process, a company cannot simply focus on its hiring managers. The entire process needed to be looked at to ensure that applications focused on skills. There need to be diverse recruitment panels in companies.

Training could have the opposite effect when people were made aware that they may hold firm biases. This might reinforce the unconscious bias rather than reduce it.

It is essential, said Mr Pringle, that UBT is not used in isolation. It should be incorporated with other initiatives and evaluated thoroughly to show issues that would make the workplace more inclusive.

Business psychologist and author of Racism at Work Binna Kandola questioned the timing of the criticism directed at unconscious bias training, saying that if the issue of race had been taken care of there would be no problems with UBT.

‘While a 2-hour training session on its own may not make a difference, it is a start. Unfortunately, if people are resistant to change then nothing will ever improve.’

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