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It’s got big problems, no doubt. But there are ways to improve it.


The UK Chair of KPMG’s controversial comments on Unconscious Bias being “complete and utter crap” has stirred up a fair bit of conversation about how effective Unconscious Bias Training (UBT) actually is.

Companies have been cancelling UBT programmes because they’re finding the training fails to yield significant results – and they may have a point here as we’ll discuss in a moment – but calling the existence of Unconscious Bias itself ‘bullshit’ is, well, problematic at best!

UBT comes from a good place.

The training programmes are designed to make people aware of biases that stem from stereotypes based on backgrounds, cultures and personal experiences as they take decisions. It’s an attempt to provide tools that can help workplaces become more inclusive and diverse, which aside from being a good thing to do from an ethical or just plain human standpoint, often leads to some serious business benefits too.

That said, mandatory unconscious bias training often fails. And there’s dangerous growing scepticism around the effectiveness of unconscious bias training as a result. Several companies, including government bodies have even scrapped unconscious bias training programs because they see it doesn’t work.

Fortunately, using a combination of L&D experience and behavioural science rigour, there are 3 ways to make unconscious bias training much more effective at encouraging diversity and inclusion:

1. Broaden the focus. Think long-term.

Unconscious bias training tends to focus on just a handful of biases.

Stereotype bias and representativeness bias: If we said to you ‘Joey Wat is the CEO of Yum China’, without thinking you might assume that Joey is a man because the name is androgenous and we often see men in the CEO’s seat. But Joey identifies as a woman. Equally, when hiring, sometimes we hire people into senior positions because we’ve subconsciously we’ve always had someone of a particular identity in that role – even though it’s discriminatory to equally qualified people of other identities.

Affinity bias: We tend to want to work with people who are like us. Like all these biases, this is just human nature. The problem is that it can lead to in-group and out-group cliques, or even something akin to an ‘old boys club’ in an organisation, which is excluding at best, and toxic at worst.

Halo effect: We’ll choose to hire or promote people who make us laugh, or even who we think are more attractive, over equally qualified people. Again, this is just unconscious human nature, but to exclude or include people on this basis can lead to the most competent people missing out, and the business missing out along with them.

Groupthink: Homogenous steering groups being led by their most senior people can lead to more junior people just agreeing with their bosses and towing the line, often out of fear, rather than expressing their actual views. Often this means alternative opinions and outside perspectives aren’t heard, which can lead to disaster.

These are all valid behavioural biases that need to be straightened out across organisations.

The trouble is that in reality, there are over 100 cognitive biases that interfere with recruitment, promotion and cohesion decisions across organisations – and UBT tends to ignore many of these.

Now it’s not going to be possible to cover all these biases in a single training session. It’d just be too much to take in at once, and even if they could take it all in, the course would be so long the attendees would be there till the cows come home.

Instead, rather than thinking of UBT as a one-off flash-in-the-pan, we need to treat it as a longer-term programme. A course, where over months or even years, you introduce people to more biases and ways to account for them when making key decisions at work.

The reason is that culture change doesn’t happen overnight.

That much is obvious. But that said, a longer-term approach can make the business more vigilant against a broader range of biases, allowing people more time and space to process them over time. And, as an added benefit, it gives people a chance to implement changes to internal processes and environments that can lead to these kinds of biases after each session.

Which leads us to point 2…

2. Embed the change

Simply being more conscious of unconscious biases can only be so effective. It doesn’t magically fix inequalities in the workplace in one fell swoop.

To put that another way, if someone’s been unconsciously racist for the past 30 years, one 2hr session on ethnicity and inclusion is not going to change that (however much we’d like it to).

For true change, we need to remove opportunity for biases in the workplace by design. That is, create environments around people that actively encourage more inclusive decision-making.
Here are three examples of how we can do that:

Use blind hiring: Removing names from CVs and applications can help people stay objective during the hiring process. The reason is people are less influenced by the representativeness bias of particular identities, or ethnicities being more suited to certain roles than others.

By hiring without names on the CVs it’s much easier to pick people based on merit, skill and competence, rather than any other parts of people’s identities. You can do this via a two-layered process:
1. Anonymised CV review and scoring against pre-set criteria, followed by…
2. An informal interview/chat, to help you choose the person who best fits your organisation’s culture.

Write inclusive job ads: To attract talent from a diverse pool of candidates, it’s important to write job ads with inclusivity in mind. Some businesses do this by:

  • Limiting referral hiring and always going beyond personal networks.
  • Using gender-neutral job titles and language wherever possible.
  • Highlighting inclusive benefits, values and commitments to reassure candidates of your inclusive culture.

Run structured meetings: To battle groupthink, it’s crucial to intentionally bring more voices into decision-making processes. You can do that quite easily in two ways:

  1. Getting people to submit their individual opinions and thoughts in advance of meetings.
  2. In the meetings themselves, making sure that more junior members of the team have the chance to speak and express their opinions before more senior people step in.

With the IKEA effect in mind you can also go further and use surveys and focus groups to bring more people from across the business into the decision-making process. Even if these surveys are anonymous, they’re likely to make people more accepting of the outcome of any decisions that leaders make later on down the line.

3. Evaluate and refine

35% of hiring decision-makers intend to increase their investment in diversity initiatives over the coming years. But if companies are pouring massive resources into UBT, it’s only fair that they keep evaluating the training’s impact.

This is often talked about, but what often gets missed is how to actually do this measurement. So here are two key ways:

Self-report surveys: That is, simply asking people to rate their perception of the diversity and inclusivity of the business or their team, both before and after the training, and regularly after your embedding process has had a chance to have an impact. You’ll be able to see if perceptions are shifting through this approach, and if they’re not, ask people for their opinions on what more could be done to refine your approach.

Observable metrics: Keeping close tabs on the progression and pay of minority groups vs less marginalised identities, and the ratios of genders and minorities in more senior positions. As these figures improve, celebrate them publicly to encourage more positive change across the business until you reach equality.

The key takeaway here is that unconscious bias training alone cannot eliminate biases in the workplace.

But, well-structured, long-term, timely, measurable programmes can. If we can bring this approach into hiring processes, into internal and external communications, into appraisals and into meetings, and we regularly evaluate the impact of training over time, it will be possible to steer behaviour in a more inclusive direction – even in the largest of organisations.

You made it here!

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