Unconscious bias training ‘has no sustained impact’ on behaviour, says report

Experts say employers need to be ‘realistic about what training does’, as CIPD releases new research

A review of D&I practices published by the CIPD has called into question the impact of diversity training in fostering inclusive workplaces. 

The Diversity management that works review found that while diversity training did increase awareness of issues such as unconscious bias, evidence of attitude and behavioural change among staff as a result of the training was less conclusive. 

At the report’s launch on Monday, researchers and HR professionals called for the use of “stronger levers” to bring change to the workplace, and lamented a “scandalous” lack of minority representation in UK workplaces. 

Jonny Gifford, research adviser at the CIPD and lead author of the report, warned that unconscious bias training could sometimes bring unintended consequences. “We need to be realistic about what training does and doesn't do,” he said.

“Unconscious bias has become a much more popular topic over recent years, but it doesn't necessarily follow that you can reduce bias and prejudice by explaining the psychology of it [to people]. In some cases, it can unleash it,” said Gifford.

“If some people come away from unconscious bias training with a message that ‘it's all unconscious, so it's not really my fault and everyone's got unconscious bias’, then that can increase bias.”

The report highlighted an “extremely limited” evidence base for unconscious bias training leading to positive change in employee behaviour, concluding that diversity training “doesn’t usually show a sustained impact on behaviour and emotional prejudice, and alone is not sufficient to create a diverse and inclusive organisation”.

Gifford added: “We need to look for ways that seem more promising in terms of making training effective,” recommending an approach to training that focused on ‘perspective taking’, rather than biases.

“There seems to be better evidence of impact when it comes to getting people to think about the disadvantages and the discrimination that different groups face, and really getting them to reflect on the experiences of other people and listening to stories,” he said. 

The report, which was produced using workshops with professionals as well as reviewing the existing body of research on key areas of diversity and inclusion practice, recommended that employers continue to run diversity training but make it mandatory, repeat key sessions and focus on perspective-taking exercises and building specific skills.

Louise Ashley, senior researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, said training should not be considered a panacea to bias and prejudice in the workplace, adding: “Sometimes people enact bias knowingly for rational reasons.”

She suggested that “stronger levers for change” were needed to improve workplace practices, and called for more government legislation and positive action on the issue of diversity.