Is unconscious bias training fit for purpose?

With the government announcing it is scrapping the course for civil servants, People Management asked the experts whether other employers should follow suit

Is unconscious bias training fit for purpose?

Unconscious bias training has long been a staple of employers’ inclusion and diversity programmes. So it was a surprise to many, though not everyone, that yesterday the government announced it was scrapping unconscious bias training for civil servants in England, and urged other public sector employers to follow suit.

“Unconscious bias training does not achieve its intended aims. It will therefore be phased out in the civil service,” said Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez in a written statement – citing a study commissioned by the Government Equalities Office that found “no evidence” that the training exercises improved equality in the workplace.

The announcement was immediately met with concern from many equality activists. Lucille Thirlby, assistant general secretary of the FDA Union, which represents civil servants, questioned what would replace it. She told the BBC: “It’s easier to attack something than do something positive about it.”

But just how effective is unconscious bias training, and should other employers follow suit in dropping it from their inclusion and diversity plans?

The concept of unconscious bias – that individuals inherently prefer people who share the same qualities as themselves, and intuitively make judgements about others based on what they can perceive of their race, gender or social class – is not itself contested. Earlier this year, Prince Harry publicly admitted he was unaware of his unconscious biases until he met his now wife, Meghan Markle. The idea behind unconscious bias training is that by making an individual aware of these biases, they can avoid making decisions based on them.

Unconscious bias training really started to gain traction in 2017 after the Race in the workplace review by Baroness McGregor-Smith called for employers to make it mandatory for all employees, explains Jonny Gifford, senior adviser at the CIPD. “[Unconscious bias training] has become very popular, and understandably so, because we know from the last few decades of psychology that we are not the rational decision-makers that we would like to think we are,” he said.

However, he warned against using unconscious bias training as a “go to” solution to tackle bias in the workplace. In 2018, research from equalities watchdog the Equality and Human Rights Commission found little evidence to suggest that the training can alter or change behaviour, suggesting that while it could be effective for reducing implicit bias, it was unlikely to eliminate it. The CIPD's own research also found that HR must be evidence based in designing strategies and practices around inclusion and diversity.

“Good-quality data is a massive part of the equation here,” Gifford added. “Having good-quality data that shows there's an issue that needs addressing makes it much easier for HR professionals to get this as a strong agenda item.”

While accepting generic unconscious bias training was not effective, Suki Sandhu, CEO and founder of INvolve and Audeliss, said this did not mean it should be stopped altogether. “When hiring managers secure talent from the same pool time and time again, they inevitably end up building a homogenous team that have similar perspectives and, very often, the same blind spots,” Sandhu said. “Therefore, awareness of bias in the business environment is critical to eradicating it from the recruitment process.”

Achieving workplace inclusivity doesn’t stop at recruitment, Sandhu added, and employers needed to have inclusion policies in place to support the entire employee life cycle. “[There is no] one solution to iron out the inconsistencies we see on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “This can seem daunting for employers, so they should seek support from diversity experts if they are unsure of where to start. Doing nothing isn’t an option.”

Kate Cooper, head of research, policy and standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management, said employers should look to implement a more nuanced training programme around inclusion and diversity issues. Unconscious bias training alone was “not sufficient to change attitudes” within individuals or organisations, she said.

“It’s like if you’ve heard any motivational speaker at a conference, and they talk about time management, gratitude or changing habits,” Cooper explained. “You come away feeling great, and your intentions are absolutely right. Your enthusiasm and motivation may have changed, but your attitudes have not.” 

And Sandra Kerr, race equality director at Business in the Community, said any training needed to be focused on people's lived experiences. “Perhaps we should be less focused on the journey and more on the destination and changing outcomes,” she said.

“It might well be time to ask whether what employers are using is fit for purpose or whether there are other options, like anti-racism and inclusion training, which could get us to our goal faster.”