The unconscious bias training you’ve been told to do won’t work

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Last month, Labour leader Keir Starmer stuck his foot in his mouth — and it wasn’t even 9am. In an interview with the BBC, he referred to the Black Lives Matter movement as a “moment” and dismissed their aim to defund the police as “nonsense”. Faced with a barrage of criticism, he later said that he (and the party’s entire staff) will undergo unconscious bias training.After his stumble on live TV, Starmer’s self-enforced training will likely take place online and last around 30 minutes. It will go through things like how to identify unconscious bias in the workplace and the impact that bias has on people at work. The courses are formatted like tests: you get a percentage score and a number of tries to pass. Some online courses even give a certificate at the end.But for many, this amounts to little more than box-ticking. “My colleagues and I completed these online courses and the focus is definitely more on getting a passing score rather than education,” says Sophia Moreau, a former women’s officer at Birkbeck, University of London. Unconscious bias training didn’t lead to a change in attitude in Moreau’s workplace, and she even had to launch legal proceedings to get her discrimination complaints properly looked into. “If anything, this kind of training actually emboldens people to excuse themselves from biased or discriminatory behaviour – it’s just a tick box exercise,” she says.Businesses have invested in these online courses as a low-effort stop-gap to avoid the public backlash caused by discriminatory behaviour. Online training can cost as little as £25 per person, whereas a full day of face-to-face training can cost upwards of £300 per person. Worldwide, companies spend over $8 billion on unconscious bias training every year, according to data from McKinsey. The only problem is that it doesn’t work.The Equality and Human Rights Commission produced a report on the effectiveness of unconscious bias training in March 2018 and found little evidence to suggest that this training can alter or change behaviour. More sophisticated unconscious bias training – for example, an interactive session – can increase participant awareness of bias, but its effect is minimal.There’s no point in online-only unconscious bias training, says Ismael Lea South, the director of The Salam Project, an organisation that challenges extremist views and helps companies embrace positive values. “Unconscious bias training needs to be delivered face-to-face by an external and independent facilitator that can properly challenge workers,” he says.South says bias training should be offered at least three to four times a year, or if possible even on a monthly basis — and needs to be given by external experts who are able to question preconceived biases in an organisation’s culture. “When I facilitate unconscious bias training, I make sure it’s a two way street. I want people to be challenged, but not necessarily feel attacked. So, I’m honest with people in my sessions about my own bias, so that a real conversation can happen,” he says.If training isn’t done properly, it won’t matter if it is done face-to-face or online. Lucy Johnson used to work at a housing association and their unconscious bias training was delivered in person. “We had one session on bias, which was delivered internally by two members of our team, and that was really all the training we had,” she says. Johnson thinks the training was done for show. “Because I worked for a company which was so into equality, it was assumed by them that the training wasn’t even needed in the first place, whereas for this mentality alone, I think it definitely was needed,” she explains.Sam Rintoul, a former analyst at a London based consulting company, had a different experience with face-to-face bias training. “It generally did change attitudes, at least in the short term. The workplace was very white and middle class and had an attitude of only recruiting Oxbridge candidates before this training,” he says. Face-to-face training seems to have more an impact on people than if they were to just complete their training online. But this change in attitude didn’t last.Two weeks after they had completed their training, a senior staff member asked him a racist question about a Black family member. “Some people, more senior staff, I could tell thought it was just a huge waste of time,” he says.Leyya Sattar is the co-founder of The Other Box, a diversity and inclusion company. She believes that some organisations incorporate unconscious bias training as they think it will be a quick fix to a much larger diversity and inclusion (D&I) problem. “Bias training must be part of a multi-pronged approach to address and dismantle the institutional, systemic and daily inequalities and barriers that exist within the workplace, but also society at large,” she says. Unfortunately, poorly tailored and lazy unconscious bias training could reinforce stereotypes rather than eliminate them — simply because people will remember the information about bias but not the way they should adapt it to their own working lives.This multi-pronged approach would include embedding diversity and inclusion across an entire company: from values, campaigns and marketing, to recruitment, Sattar says. Unconscious bias training can have some effect in the workplace, but only as long as it’s approached properly and makes up a part of a wider programme. If conscious bias hasn’t yet been tackled in a workplace, then unconscious bias training won’t make a difference.
“Unconscious bias training is there to educate people on the subtleties of bias, but if you haven’t tackled conscious and quite blatant bias and discrimination, then this kind of training just isn’t going to work,” Moreau says. So, if Keir Starmer — or any other leader of an organisation — is serious about tackling bias and racism, they need to do a lot more than simply completing an online course.


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