Why unconscious bias training does not work

Dan Gates






min read


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Unconscious bias training is a waste of time.

Human decision making is prone to unconscious bias, and many of us are aware of the pernicious effects of implicit bias in the workplace. However, throwing money at the problem does nothing to improve this.

Bias can be removed from decision making, but as this article will explain, unconscious bias and diversity training isn’t the way to do this.

At the end of July, Prince Harry spoke about unconscious bias with anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall. The two met as part of the September issue of Vogue, guest-edited by Prince Harry’s wife Meghan Markle:

“It's the same as an unconscious bias - something which so many people don't understand, why they feel the way that they do. Despite the fact that if you go up to someone and say, 'What you've just said, or the way that you've behaved, is racist' - they'll turn around and say, 'I'm not a racist.'

Prince Harry cited influences such as generational attitudes and the media. He then encouraged people to question whether they are complicit in institutionalised prejudice. It’s a contentious issue, but one that companies across the globe are becoming aware of. 

What is Unconscious Bias? 

When we talk about ‘unconscious bias’, we’re referring to prejudices that we may be aware of,  but are out of our direct control. These tend to stem from stereotypes that are formed by our backgrounds, cultures, and personal experiences. 

It’s worth noting that unconscious bias is natural and very much part of our psychological makeup. But, it can hinder our attempts to make fair, objective judgments. Interested in unpacking this a little further? Take a look at our comprehensive guide to unconscious bias.

What is Bias Training? 

Bias training seeks to examine the mental and cognitive shortcuts that cause us to quickly make (often misguided) assumptions about a person’s ability or character. It usually involves a series of exercises and assessments designed to identify examples of biased thinking. The Holy Grail of these tests is the Implicit Association Test, spearheaded by Harvard University.

Bias training dates back to the 1960s, a period defined by social movements where many of our current anti-discrimination laws came to pass. Now, you would think that it was civil rights activists who called for the introduction of bias training. However, the unfortunate reality, as pointed out by Tidal Equality, was that it was actually a corporate response to anti-discrimination law, helping companies (who previously had free riegn to discriminate) avoid legal action. 

How Much Does Diversity Training Cost? 

The diversity training market was recently valued at nearly $8 billion annually. Google alone spent $114 million on diversity-related programs in 2014. Overall, according to Time Magazine, almost 20% of companies in the United States offer unconscious bias training.

A 2017 survey found that 35% of hiring decision-makers in the UK intended to increase their investment in diversity initiatives. It’s an undeniably lucrative market. But the question remains whether diversity training actually works.

On the surface, the C-Suite will eagerly buy into unconscious bias training, not least because a diverse and inclusive workforce can boost the bottom line. However, last year a study was carried out by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The study sought to measure the results of diversity training. Unconscious bias itself cannot be quantified. But, the study did aim to see whether the training had a lasting impact.

Evaluating Unconscious Bias Training Exercises

Over 10,000 employees from a large multinational company were invited to participate in “inclusive leadership workplace training.” The 3000 respondents were put in one of either two training groups and a control group. The training was a 68-minute long online course combining gender bias training with general bias training.

Wharton followed up from the training exercises in two ways. First, they sent out a survey to gauge ‘attitudes’ towards diversity. They then began measuring responses to a series of unconnected workplace initiatives. These included nominating a fellow employee to be recognised for their performance, volunteering to mentor other employees, and offering guidance to new hires.

The study found that there was a measured shift in both attitudes and behaviours amongst women and ethnic minorities. However, there was only a marginal change in white men.

It seems people who may feel diversity was a personal issue felt more compelled to implement what they had learned. The results seem to justify any scepticism about unconscious bias training effectiveness.

How to measure the effectiveness of Unconscious Bias Training?

Exactly how many organisations are following up to ensure that what has been taught is being implemented?

Diversity training is the same as any kind of training. Your workforce will sit through presentations, workshops, exercises and the like. And of course, they’ll be able to reel off all they’ve learnt that day in a tidy recap. But if there isn’t a pressing urge to use all the information they’ve learnt - it will either sit in the recesses of their brain or simply evaporate.

So how can we bridge the gap between awareness and actual behaviour? Well for starters, employees would have to flag up every time they have a thought that could be biased. Then they’d have to ensure that they replace them with more realistic, well-rounded views. 

Firstly, in a busy workplace setting, this doesn’t sound particularly practical. Secondly, for this to work in the first place the employee would have to be conscious of their unconscious bias. See? It’s a complete paradox.

Furthermore, if we propagate the idea that unconscious bias training is a magic bullet solution, hiring managers and recruiters could feel as though they don't have to second-guess their decisions. This is an example of ‘moral licensing’.  This is a psychological phenomenon in which humans use previous ‘good’ actions to justify less favourable ones.

There is even evidence to suggest that encouraging awareness of unconscious bias could hinder diversity initiatives. A study carried out in 2000 sought to measure ‘effects of thought suppression on evaluations of older job applicants.

Participants first watched a series of videos about diversity. They were then asked to evaluate a series of job applicants. Those who were instructed to ‘suppress demography-related thoughts’ surprisingly rated older applicants less positively than their younger counterparts. If you’re interested, we recently published a blog post examining  about ageism and recruitment.

According to the Journal of Organizational Behaviour, the results suggest that ‘instructions to suppress stereotypic thoughts may have detrimental effects [...] if raters are cognitively busy when they implement these instructions.’ They referred to this effect as an ‘ironic evaluation process.’

Unconscious bias training doesn’t work because it’s human nature - it has to be removed by design

We can all agree that discrimination exists, even in the workplace. However, no-one wants to admit that they are prejudiced.

Training exercises can be a slog at the best of times. We all know how defensive people can get when accused of being biased. If not handled properly, it can be a breeding ground for resentment. This is hardly the ideal foundation for an inclusive workforce.

Picture a group of employees being asked whether they can recall an example where they may have been biased towards someone. It could be based on their race, gender, age or sexual orientation. It is highly unlikely anyone will admit to it, due to what is called ‘social desirability bias’. This occurs when people are asked a question, and give answers that seem 'right' or paint them in a more positive light.

Simply being aware of unconscious bias can only be so effective. While unconscious bias training makes people aware of discrimination and bias, awareness doesn’t fix the issue. For example, people may be aware that racism exists. However, this doesn’t help them unlearn societal preconceptions about race.

So, if unconscious bias training has so many flaws, what alternative is there to create a more diverse workforce?

Talking about the problem and throwing stats around doesn’t bring about real change.

Even well-intentioned Diversity & Inclusion professionals are naive in thinking they can change companies by preaching - without changing the system itself.

Instead of simply telling people about their biases and hoping that they actively re-train what is essentially their own nature, why not just design systems that make bias impossible?

That’s where behavioural science comes in.

In short, behavioural science studies human activities to find patterns in the way we behave.

When it comes to bias, a behavioural science approach would accept that simply being told not to be biased doesn’t have an effect on how we act, and would instead seek to find a solution that actually changes habits.

Check out this example from our webinar on fairer interviewing - now let’s apply this to unconscious bias…

Here at Applied, we’ve built a blind hiring platform that makes it nearly impossible for bias to affect decision making.

Rather than just tell hirers to try and be completely objective, why not anonymise applications altogether so that they have no choice but to be objective?

There’s also ordering biases that influence judgments, which we’ve designed away too, so that minimal effort is required to remain fair.

By removing unconscious bias from your hiring process, diversity will naturally improve - no training needed! If you’d like to give this a go yourself, we’ve written a detailed guide to help you set up a process just like ours.

The Applied recruitment platform eliminates unconscious bias in recruitment. Based on the concept of blind hiring, Applied’s purpose-built software anonymises candidates so they are judged purely on merit. Furthermore, the software helps companies write inclusive job ads, to guarantee a rich and diverse pool of applicants.

Applied has already helped some of the UK’s most well-known companies streamline their hiring process, from ASOS to Penguin Random House. To find out more about how it can transform your organisation, request a demo today.