Does Unconscious Bias Training really work?

Unconscious-BiasWhen it comes to fighting discrimination at the workplace, the most popular solution that comes to mind is that of unconscious bias training. After all, if Google does it, it must work. When on April 12, 2018 a Starbucks manager called the police on two innocent men, the entire world went up in rage. Starbucks promptly responded by apologizing and on the following Tuesday, more than 175,000 employees in the United States went through a training that would address implicit  bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome. Ever since, the training on unconscious bias has become almost as necessary as safety training in organizations.

Unconscious bias training is a popular approach to addressing diversity. Organizations like Microsoft and Google have made the training deck public and encouraged other organizations to adopt the training. These trainings across organizations look very similar. They usually begin with multiple relatable examples with many encouraging the audience to take the popular Implicit Bias tests. The training then explains the impact of these biases and ends with some unclear techniques on combating them. Unconscious bias training works on the principal that if people are exposed to their unconscious biases and provided tools to adjust automatic patterns of thinking, it will ultimately eliminate discriminatory behavior. However, despite being the one of the most popular trainings in organizations today, few have invested in measuring effectiveness.

So the natural question that emerges is – does this training really work? A Google search will bring to surface a multitude of articles that say it doesn’t. A quick look at YouTube videos on the same and a read of the comments that follow will raise more doubts.

While unconscious bias training can raise awareness, there is little evidence it changes behavior, and some showing it can backfire. Awareness alone doesn’t prevent bias. Michelle Duguid of Cornell University and Melissa Thomas-Hunt of Vanderbilt have found, that when people hear that stereotyping is normal, they may do more of it by using unconscious bias as “a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card. If the message is simply “implicit bias is everywhere,” the Princeton psychologist Betsy Levy Paluck says, “This normalizes prejudice”.

If training doesn’t works, what does? The issue is there is little conclusive science of what does work when it comes to combating implicit biases and unconscious bias training feel like they work. Early evidence of attempts in this field show that the best way to combat biases is by investing in systematic processes.  For example, instead of focusing on ensuring gender diverse interview panels, focus on skill based assessments and structured interviews. One school of thought believes gender diverse panels do not work, as both genders are prone to similar biases due to environmental conditioning. However, skill based assessments and structured interviews are the best-known processes that exist to combat biases. Organizations have also begun to scrub resumes of any gender/race indicators before passing them to hiring managers.  Installing checks and processes that help combat biases are our best chance at fighting discrimination.

Today, almost everything about implicit bias is controversial in scientific circles as is with almost everything around discrimination. The argument on ‘does unconscious bias training actually work’ can be made for any training that an organization does including those on email writing. It is best to experiment and find for yourself what works and doesn’t, be aware of the evidences that emerge and work towards instituting processes that fight discrimination. Indexing on training alone is unlikely to move the needle on diversity efforts.


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