Why We Don’t Do Unconscious Bias Training

Since our launch last September we’re regularly asked by companies if we can provide Unconscious Bias Training for their staff . At first we were quite flattered by the number of requests, but it may surprise you to find out that we don’t do it. Don’t get us wrong, it’s encouraging to see companies making training around racism a top priority (providing of course it is being done authentically and for the right reasons), however Unconscious Bias Training (UBT), at least either on its own or as a first port of call for training, is not the answer.

“COMPLETE AND UTTER CRAP”

Those aren’t our words. They’re those of Bill Michael. Remember him? The former boss of KPMG who ended up having to resign after he used them to describe exactly what he thought of UBT. His words during the virtual meeting with KPMG staff were “I don’t buy it… because after every single unconscious bias training that has ever been done, nothing’s ever improved”. Say what you like – but the man might have a point according to a number of surveys on the issue. Surveys that show statistics like:

  • despite 81% of companies conducting unconscious bias training – there was diminishing confidence among leaders that it alone was enough to ensure a fair, consistent and effective process; or
  • there is a problem between company training and actual delivery of diversity objectives

SO WHAT EXACTLY IS THE PROBLEM WITH UBT THEN?

Unconscious Bias Training tends to jump straight to identifying the biases people have and let’s be really honest with ourselves – WE ALL HAVE THEM. About race, gender, religion, class, even which football team people support and does pointing them out actually change them? Does a workshop that highlights everyone’s racial biases make them less racist? And which biases are being addressed? Implicit biases or Explicit biases? Racial biases? Class biases? At its very best Unconscious Bias Training will leave your organisation with people who feel bad for a bit and might even leave them with some tools to help overcome their bias in future. But that aside, there is some surprising research highlighted in this article that shows the result of UBT tends not to have much effect on White men for instance, nor does it change behaviours in the workplace in equality terms in relation to representation of women, Black, Brown or other Minoritised groups. Instead it’s more likely that these groups retain the positives and learnings from the training longer than any other groups.  Additionally, the impact of the training on individuals doesn’t last that long, maybe six weeks at the most.

Unconscious Bias training allows companies to lay blame solely at the door of ‘things they can’t control’ and to blame individuals rather than looking at their systems and processes.

Speaking with one of our members Anne-Marie Senior who has worked in Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) for more than twenty years, she explains how she has observed many organisations breathe a sigh of relief when they realise they can justify matters with a ‘oh it’s not me, it’s just my unconscious bias at play’. Anne-Marie goes on to say UBT can bring very positive results but not in isolation – organisations need to ensure that it is part of a wider strategy of tackling inequality.

The trend to explore bias in a curated training environment rather than trying to establish cultural change within companies then, in our view won’t lead to organisations becoming anti-racist because such training allows the company to put the blame back on the people in the business and back on inherent individual biases. And by doing so, it avoids having to address the structures of the business itself. Structures that we know hold up racism. We talk about this in more detail below, so bear with us for now.

SO WHERE DO WE START INSTEAD THEN?

We start with understanding what anti-racism means and the only way to understand that is to have open conversations about it. These in turn lead to individuals starting on their own anti-racist journeys.

Becoming anti-racist is THE most important factor in workplace diversity training. And if you’re wondering what being anti-racist actually means, take a look at the following resources, preferably in the order they are listed:

 

  1. John Amachei

  2. Anti Racism – What does it mean and where to begin?

  3. Eight books to start your anti-racist journey

 

But isn’t anti-racism the same game with a different name?

No. Not if we take the time to first understand what anti-racism is. And not if we take the time and effort to start with empathy, rather than by telling people they’re ‘wrong’. Through honest conversations, we build understanding and introduce people to people. Those conversations aren’t guilt-inducing sessions, they are safe spaces where real in-depth human contact is made, connections are built and stereotypes begin to break down. These are conversations that make people think for themselves. We know that anti-racism takes time so we allow people the time and space to explore things, ask questions, challenge us and then make their own choice to become anti-racist. We can’t force them, in fact as can be seen from UBT, sometimes doing so makes things worse, not better – research shows that those sessions alone have not seen more Black Brown and Minoritsed people getting promoted or even hired. Sharing real life human stories with people and listening to theirs is far more effective than telling people they have biases. Creating time and space to allow thoughts to develop and be investigated is much better.

 

HOW DOES THIS IMPACT CHANGES IN THE WORKING ENVIRONMENT?

Good question. Remember that old thing called systemic, or institutional racism? Yes, the thing The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (31 March 2021) report says no longer exists? Yes, that one which has been met with such unprecedented backlash even Boris who commissioned it has realised it was a mistake to try and pull that one out and has distanced himself from it, leaving it instead to  the likes of Kemi and Priti to try to persuade us…If we acknowledge there is racism in Britain (which the report at least does that) then we have to acknowledge it will find its way into institutions, and thereby form the foundations of the culture of that institution.  It therefore stands to reason that once individuals start to understand racism and make the choice to become anti-racist, the culture of an organisation can begin to slowly change. What we’re striving for at Anti Racist Cumbria, is to make Cumbria an anti-racist county; we can only do that by changing the culture of organisations from within and we can only start to make that change by having Conversations with the people in them.

We want as many people as possible to become anti-racist and whilst we genuinely and deeply believe that can be done, we know it’s much harder to change people than to change systems. And that’s why becoming anti-racist is an ongoing process, it’s not something we try to ‘fix’ in an afternoon’s workshop. And we think that rather than just blaming ‘Mary’ and her unconscious bias for (e.g.) not hiring any Black or Brown people, we think it’s as important for Mary and ALL HER COLLEAGUES to be able to look at the recruitment process through an anti-racist lens. Of course we want Mary to become anti-racist but that isn’t the only answer, because what happens when Mary leaves? What anti-racist systems are in place? Will Mary’s replacement be anti-racist? If there aren’t systems in place for new people who enter the business to become anti-racist too then all that hard work dies.  An anti-racist workforce becomes accountable for its own policies, procedures, and processes ensuring they too and in fact EVERYTHING in the organisation is anti-racist so that change begins and importantly continues long after the current workforce has moved on.

CONCLUSIONS

The truth is implicit bias can’t be changed in a workshop or two and after a workshop you’re still going to have these ‘instinctive’ reactions. What can be changed is the unpicking of the thoughts and understanding how decisions you make based on them might impact on others, how you’ve never really had to think about that or the privileges it affords you.

We aren’t calling out Unconscious Bias trainers, or training companies. You’re working hard and you’re doing your best to make a difference and in some cases you will be. That’s great. What we do ask is that you make sure the companies aren’t hiring you as their equivalent of putting up a black square on social media – remember last year when everyone did that and then just went back to being non-racist as opposed to anti-racist and delivered on not one of their empty promises? Challenge back and see what they’re doing following your recommendations. Is your workshop part of an ongoing suite of things they are doing or is this it? Who’s delivering that work?

If Conversations are not part of the process, conversations that lead to a change in the overall culture of an organisation, then THE most important step is being missed out. Talking about race and racism does make people feel more than a little bit itchy but those awkward conversations when done well, not only help those involved understand why taking steps to address inequality are needed but starts the process of cultural change and guess what – it spills over into their personal lives too – a double whammy!

So now, when we get a call or an email from a company asking us if we can provide some UBT to their staff, we do two things; first we say ‘no’, second we send them to this article to explain why.

 

Resources/Links:

Complete and Utter Crap

Unconscious Bias Training alone will not stop discrimination

Unconscious bias and diversity training – what the evidence says

Why Unconscious Bias Training Doesn’t Work