How to Make Unconscious Bias Training Work

Organizations are slowly recognizing that they must provide training on unconscious bias to create a more inclusive culture, but they often go down the wrong path. There are some considerations that can improve the likelihood that a training initiative can succeed.

What can your organization do?

1. Set realistic expectations. Do not over promise and under deliver. Raising expectations that unconscious bias training will eliminate all bias would be disingenuous. The goal is to be conscious of our biases not to pretend to be blind to differences that exist.

2. Provide appropriate time for the training. It has taken a lifetime to develop our biases; they cannot be overcome in a two-hour session. Ideally several short sessions or one full day is a minimum.

3. Provide the training in-person. This topic requires interaction, trust and the opportunity for people to meet in a safe environment. Unconscious bias training is not appropriate for e-learning or webinars. While it may seem cost-effective to cover this topic in e-learning or via webinars, sessions there will be very little measurable change.

4. Be extremely judicious in selecting the right facilitator.Do not select a trainer because they took a course on diversity, see this topic as their passion or are from an underrepresented group. Trainers should be highly qualified and well versed in the social psychology of attitude formation, be excellent and empathetic facilitators and have a nonthreatening and inclusive style that avoids guilt trips.

5. Incorporate unconscious bias assessment tools such as those provided by Project Implicit. This tool, which helps to uncover hidden biases on many criteria including, race, gender, disabilities and age, has been used more than a million times to uncover hidden biases. Trainers must also know the pitfalls of this test and the way people interpret the outputs from the Project Implicit website. Trainers must check that trainees are not misinterpreting results and have support as required.

6. Unconscious bias training is most effective when focusing on specific real situations such as reviewing résumés, conducting interviews or responding to customers. It has been used to educate judges and potential jurors, in health care and in virtually all commercial and governmental organizations. An example of an outcome would be asking how to correctly pronounce someone’s name; it’s a microaffirmation, while not using someone’s name because you are afraid of embarrassing yourself is a microinequity.

7. Address the topic of in-group favoritism and how it operates in the organization. Research shows that a lack of diversity creates group think while diverse viewpoints result in more creativity and innovation.

8. The training should help to identify situations in which our implicit biases run contrary to our organizations’ explicit values.

9. Use proven successful simulations, role-plays and other interactive exercises that help people consider others’ perspective. Many standard tools used in diversity training are inappropriate.

10. Have groups discuss word, phrases, symbols, jokes and other symbolic representations of their group that they find offensive and why.

11. Provide debiasing counter-stereotyping activities such as making associations which go counter to existing stereotypes — male nurses, female scientists, elderly athletes.

Learning about our hidden biases is not sufficient. Successful training must also help participants to identify and build skills to overcome these biases. There must be an expectation that there will be measurable behavioral changes, and that those in training will support each other in implementing these changes.

It is unrealistic to expect that our unconscious biases, which have taken years to develop, will melt away after a single training program. Follow-up training or coaching will help to reinforce the original training. Metrics that demonstrate changes in behavior, such as the percentages of underrepresented candidates selected for development programs should be a part of any follow-up to demonstrate the commitment to take action.

If organizations want to hire and retain the best and the brightest, increase employee engagement and create a culture of inclusiveness that generates innovation, their leaders and employees must learn to identify their hidden biases, and make conscious decisions to try to eliminate them in the workplace.

Let me know your thoughts, experiences, best practices and worst-case scenarios: