on
4
September
2019

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 worldwide becoming aware of. 

The Cost of Diversity Training Programs

According to Time Magazine, almost 20% of companies in the United States offer unconscious bias training. The diversity training market was recently valued at nearly $8 billion annually. Google alone spent $114 million on diversity-related programs in 2014. 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. However, the study aimed 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 skepticism about unconscious bias training effectiveness. But why exactly is the current set-up so flawed?

We can all agree that discrimination exists, but 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.

How Are We Supposed to Measure Unconscious Bias Training Effectiveness?

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 can be fixed through training, 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. (You can learn more about ageism and recruitment in one of our recent blog posts.) 

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.’

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

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.