Diversity & inclusion25 min read

If unconscious bias training doesn’t work, what’s the alternative?

Unconscious bias training is infamous in the diversity, equity and inclusion world and is fast becoming well known outside of those circles too.

It has graced the pages of Vogue, a reported 20% of US-based companies use it (although we expect the real number to be much higher) and US companies alone spend more than $8 billion a year on it. It’s used as everything from a mandatory tick box exercise to a ‘go-to solution’ when something goes wrong (see: Starbucks, Sephora).

But over the past 100 years, countless pieces of academic research — the most recent of which comes from Harvard University — have proven that bias training is one of the least effective ways to create a more diverse workforce.

Why?

 Because it fails to create lasting behavior change. It says, “Hey, you have bias!” and not “here’s what to do about it.”

And that’s problematic. Creating lasting behavior change and the kind of inclusive culture that helps diverse teams thrive is the only way to develop a truly equitable organization.

At Hive Learning, we speak to 100s of diversity and inclusion leaders at the forefront of change every week. And while many of those leaders agree that unconscious bias training is ineffective at driving lasting behavior change, the majority still use it in some shape or form.

So we set out to answer two critical questions.

  1. Is there still a place for unconscious bias training at work?
  2. What are the main alternatives?

The insights we gathered from some of the D&I industry’s most forward-thinking leaders are distilled into this action-oriented report, with insights you can put into practice right away.

P.S. The report should take you no longer than 25 minutes to read, but hey, we get it, you’re busy. If you don’t have time to read it now, sign up for our newsletter and we’ll deliver the report straight to your inbox in bite-sized chunks over the course of the next week.

Is there still a place for unconscious bias training at work?

“The root causes of bias include one difficult truth: no one is immune from them… Concerted, consistent and continuous action is required.”

Iris Bohnet, author of What Works: Gender Equality by Design

Unconscious bias training is often the starting point for organizations early on in their D&I journey. And many D&I leaders agree that unconscious bias training can be a powerful tool for opening up a dialogue about bias, creating awareness about its existence, and fuelling moments of awakening that spark a desire to take action against it.

But the forgetting curve is real. We forget 60% of what we’ve learned in 24 hours if it’s not reinforced. And awareness doesn’t lead to action.

“If you want your employees and leaders to learn more about discrimination, biases, and stereotyping, run unconscious bias training. But, if you want your organization to become more diverse, and be positioned to leverage that diversity, do something other than unconscious bias training.”

Dr. Frank Dobbin, Harvard University

Of the D&I leaders we spoke to, 69% felt that unconscious bias training still has a place at work, but that it only has a positive impact coupled with other initiatives.

When delivered well, in a way that’s human and with a focus on storytelling, it can be a powerful tool in helping people understand the why.

Hearing stories from people who are necessarily not like them revealed completely new biases. It can be a great tool for getting people to appreciate how their behaviors can be biased and enable them to recognize them. SARAH KAISER GLOBAL HEAD OF DIVERSITY & INCLUSION, LEADING PENSION FUND FIRM

But not one of the 30+ leaders we spoke to felt that unconscious bias training was effective at driving lasting behavior change.

“Unconscious bias training is important when it comes to raising awareness but not for action. Unless you give people the tools to do something differently and be more accountable, you can’t create a massive cultural shift across your whole organization.”

Sady Fischer, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, BlueCross, BlueShield

The conclusion? Unconscious bias training can increase awareness, but it won’t drive action against bias and can’t drive culture change.

Our leaders agreed — the only way to create the kind of inclusive culture that will help diverse teams thrive is to give your people the tools to circumvent bias by focusing not on unconscious bias, but on conscious action instead.

The alternatives: How to drive continuous action against bias

1. Rebrand your D&I training 

For an increasing number of organizations, unconscious bias training drives backlash rather than progress. With its goal of helping people understand what bias is and why it matters, it often unintentionally excludes majority groups — who can leave training sessions feeling disheartened and like they’re the cause of a massive societal problem.

So instead of creating standalone bias training, reframe and rebrand your D&I training. Focus learning on how to take action against bias and the tiny habits your leaders need to form to be more inclusive every day.

Then reframe the benefits. Instead of talking about why it’s important to overcome your unconscious bias, talk about how inclusion helps you become a better leader, colleague or friend. How it will help you tap into the collective wisdom of your peer group better, hear all voices, and make better decisions — at work and at home.

The best alternative to unconscious bias training is not to create another new training. Instead, think about inclusive leadership and encompass the principles into what’s already being offered. If you add bias training and training on how to practice inclusive behavior to existing leadership development programs, people will likely have a better response to it. That way it’s seen as part of the process of being a good manager and is more subtle than adding to any diversity fatigue. SOPHIE ROBSON EMEA HEAD OF DIVERSITY & INCLUSION, UBS

Framing inclusion as part of being a good leader helps people see inclusion as a skill they can learn, instead of feeling like their bias makes them fundamentally flawed.

While organizations like UBS and many others are beginning to talk about inclusive leadership, other organizations choose not to talk about inclusion at all.

2. Focus on tiny actions 

In the words of Sady Fischer, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, at healthcare giant Blue Cross Blue Shield:

“Unless you give people the tools to do something different and be more accountable, you can’t create massive cultural shifts across your whole organization.”

Biases are really hard to change. Processes aren’t. Rather than focusing on telling people ‘you have bias’, focus on helping them understand what they can practically do differently.

And while you’re at it, focus on actions that will support every element of diversity, like Global (the renowned media network) has done.

“We like to take a multi-pronged approach and look at all parts of D&I including cognitive diversity, neurodiversity, disability. Often the gender agenda turns people off. If you want to really change your culture, you’ve got to activate the whole workforce to do something differently and consider every element of diversity.”

Sally Cairns, Chief People Officer, Global

Culture is made of a thousand habits and behaviors that your people practice every day. And there is no silver bullet for culture change. In words of Aubrey Blanche, former Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Atlassian, it’s 500,000 tiny bullets you have to fire all at the same time.

People have to take responsibility for their actions and often bias training gives people a free pass — it doesn’t encourage you to challenge yourself or give you the tools to do something with it. NANCY LENGTHORN HEAD OF INCLUSION & BELONGING, MEDIACOM AND WPP

The only way to get those 500,000 tiny bullets firing in your organization is to help every person do just a handful of things differently. When that cascades up, you can create massive ripples of cultural change that activate fast.

“Inclusion only happens if you bake it into your daily habits — so bring the development of ‘inclusion’ skills into processes like how you lead meetings.” 

Early Career and Comeback Program Talent Acquisition Manager, Global Commercial Bank

In practice:

Inclusion Works from Hive Learning is a digital toolkit designed to take people on a journey from awareness to action. Examples of behaviors we ask people to practice that are different are:

✍🏻 Change their email signature to acknowledge their pronouns

"signature updated! if something that simple can support inclusivity...I am all in. :)" Participant in Inclusion Works by Hive Learning Jan 2020

📢 Call out microaggressions when they see them

"As with anything that you wish to improve, I think that this type of dialogue takes practice. Start small, with someone you trust. Ask questions ad lustre with an open mind." Participant in Inclusion Works by Hive Learning Aug 2019

📝 Avoid referrals when hiring as a line manager

In one client, a culmination of tiny actions drove 88% of participants to take action against bias in under 2 months.

 

Your action step

Request a demo to find out how a global media firm drove 88% of participants to take action against bias in under 2 months and see how our Inclusion Works program could help your people take action against bias.

 

3. Nudge people to take action but keep it simple 

It’s one thing to ask people to bake inclusion into their daily habits, but we’re all human. For people to change their behavior, you’ll need to nudge them to take action. Make it as easy and automatic as possible for them to make an impact, and use those nudges to interrupt bias in the flow of work.

And remember, you can use a combination of physical and digital nudges.

"Making sure that everyone has the power to make an impact can be critical." SALLY CAIRNS CHIEF PEOPLE OFFICER, GLOBAL

For example, if part of your focus is on how to run inclusive meetings or change interviewing behaviors, take a leaf out of UBS’s book.

In their meeting rooms, they put a label on a jar of jelly beans that says, ‘Do you always pick the same one?’

Digital nudges can also be the best way to encourage more inclusive behavior at scale. Trying to create a change in culture across the whole organization is difficult and expensive. Using tech as an ally can be crucial for making sure people are putting what they’ve learned into action at point of need.

Sending digital nudges, whether it’s via email or through a nudge-driven platform, can help you interrupt bias in the flow of work. Include stories from those who have experienced bias, provide people with actionable tips and actions they can practice throughout the day, and prompt reflection from people who have already tried practising these desired behaviors.

When sent regularly, these nudges will help your people form an inclusion habit. One global financial services firm using the Inclusion Works programme found that at the beginning of their program, 80% of engagement with their inclusion content was driven by a nudge. By month three, 50% of participants engaged in their inclusion content without prompt – proving they had begun to form an inclusion habit.

Imagine what would happen if every person in your organization did just one thing differently every day — huge ripples of change will happen fast.

4. Create accountability

There’s an ongoing debate as to whether diversity and inclusion initiatives should be linked to managers’ targets and performance. Our research found leaders were split completely down the middle as to whether this was a good or bad move.

In practice:

One D&I director in a global healthcare giant believes that linking diversity and inclusion to targets is critical.

This year she asked every team to align to equity, inclusion or access to at least one of their goals and objectives. To help people do that, she sat down with different people across the organization to look at their goals and help them understand how they could align equity, inclusion or access to their existing goals.

She found that often people were being more inclusive or increasing access without realizing they were doing it. For example, her development team were highly focused on making their technology accessible. Yet they didn’t think they did anything to support a more diverse and inclusive workforce which, of course, wasn’t the case.

This leader now sends monthly reports to the leadership team, highlighting people doing good work and examples of inclusive behaviors, as well as publishing these on their internal blog. As a result, the amount of inclusive behavior has begun to increase across the organization.

Providing people with constant reminders about the role they play in building a more inclusive environment helps to bake in accountability .

All of the leaders we interviewed agreed that regardless of whether or not you use targets or other methods, creating accountability across your whole organization is critical.

Gernot Sendowski, Director of Global Diversity & Inclusion, Deutsche Bank, suggests:

“If there’s no process behind it to drive that accountability [running a program] then there is no sense to it at all. It’s good in the know-how — we know how to roll out the training — but the audience doesn’t naturally understand why it’s important. A key challenge is trying to get people to know why it’s important. We need to focus on more sustainable accountability.”

Some leaders believe that linking diversity and inclusion initiatives to targets and objectives can mean that people just see it simply as another target to hit, rather than investing in creating a long-lasting change to take action against bias.

Gernot’s point about focusing on ‘sustainable’ accountability — baking thinking about diversity and inclusion into daily habits — throws up a bigger question about what that looks like.

In practice:

There are ways to bake in accountability without focusing solely on compensation but by giving your people the tools to hold each other to account and challenge their existing thinking.

Linking both targets and accountability, Dame Jayne-Anne Ghadia — former CEO of Virgin Money — spoke on the Inclusion Works podcast about how she solved an uneven distribution in bonuses for men and women just by asking her teams to look again.

“At Virgin Money, even after I’d done all of this work and we were so focused obviously as a result on diversity at Virgin Money.

“I remember that the year-end performance assessments all came in. It’s an area that is emotionally important and financially to people. So all of my team do their work and before they’re all signed off, they would come to me and I’d just look at the distribution of bonuses. It was the first year that we’d split it by gender. What do men get and what do women get?

“Much to my shock and horror, in Virgin Money, men were not just being paid more but recognized much more for their performance than women. So I just sent it back to my team and said, ‘is this really right?'”

"Much to my shock and horror, in Virgin Money, men were not just being paid more but recognized much more for their performance than women. So I just sent it back to my team and said, ‘is this really right?’" DAME JAYNE-ANNE GHADIA FORMER CEO, VIRGIN MONEY

“Of course, they looked at it and went ‘no, absolutely not’. Now that we’ve actually seen it written down and analyzed like that, it’s not right.

“Of course, it came back with a much more normal distribution curve around an equal balance of men and women because the business had an equal balance of male and female staff. 

“That was a real lesson for me. I do believe what gets measured gets done and then when it’s measured and done, it should be transparent so that everybody can go really.

“Because actually, I don’t think many people are bad.

“I just think they don’t see enough to know how to do the good thing, and so I think I’d say, what is it in your business that you could measure and make public that really is going to make people go really? Is it like that? Because it made a huge difference.”

 

Your action step

Swap challenges, ideas, and insights on how to create accountability with over 500 D&I leaders in the Inclusion Works Leaders Network.

 

5. Start with talent practices — set an example

Make debiasing your systems and processes a critical priority. Most of our processes and systems have biases ingrained in them, which makes it harder to ensure that you’re being proactive about building diversity and inclusion within your organization. We need to be intentional in making sure that every person in our organization looks closely at their processes.

Looking at your people processes — and the data surrounding those processes — can be a key first step on the journey to circumventing unconscious bias. Every leader we spoke to started with recruitment, naming this as the place that could make the biggest impact.

Start by taking small steps.

 

Like anonymizing resumes.

One company we spoke to found that beyond anonymizing personal details, removing a candidate’s educational institution had a dramatic effect on improving the BAME representation in candidates coming through the system.

And you don’t need to overhaul your talent processes to make an impact. You can start by taking small steps like anonymizing resumes. One company we spoke to found that beyond anonymizing personal details, removing a candidate’s educational institution had a dramatic effect on improving the BAME representation in candidates coming through the system. Simply by taking out the educational institution, interviewers focused on skills rather than background.

“In our recruitment process, we took the educational institution completely out from the resume and we were shocked at how big an impact that had on increasing the diverse representation of candidates at interview stage. Doing that not only debiased the process but it also completely changed the narrative around what good candidates looked like.”

Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion, Financial Services

But every organization is different. While this worked for this organization, it had the opposite effect for a global bank who found that recruiters were second-guessing educational institutions from the name of the course the candidates took — a good reminder that helping people circumvent bias is a series of processes and you have to look at your own data to see what works for you.

 

Your action step

Find out more about how to avoid diversity fatigue in this Inclusion Works pulse report

 

6. Don’t make your D&I training mandatory

Finally, don’t make your D&I training mandatory. In an infamous Quartz interview about the problem with diversity training, author Oliver Staley shared that mandatory training often backfires by breeding resentment.

It becomes another training workshop or e-learning course they people have to do as part of their compliance training, and once they’ve completed it, they don’t think about it again. They don’t think about it as an ongoing and critical process.

Make your D&I training voluntary and focus on selling the benefit, and you’ll be surprised how many more people participate and activate change. One client told us their voluntary digital inclusion training program had higher completion rates than their mandatory program — because it was sold as a valuable part of leadership training, rather than as a tick box exercise.

 

In summary

“Trying to teach people about their bias is unproductive because it doesn’t tell them what they can do differently.”

Sinead Daly, Diversity & Inclusion Specialist, Revolut

Ultimately, the only way to truly create the kind of inclusive culture that enables diverse teams to thrive is to focus not on unconscious bias, but on driving conscious action instead.

How do you do that?

  1. Rebrand your D&I initiatives. Stop talking about the problem with bias and start talking about how being inclusive makes you a better leader, colleague and friend
  2. Focus on tiny actions. Give people the tools to take action against bias every day
  3. Nudge people to take action. Use small physical and digital signals to encourage people to act, reflect and repeat those all-important behaviors, helping them form an inclusion habit
  4. Create accountability. Whether it’s baked into targets or making people accountable to their peers, you’ll struggle to make progress without clear accountability
  5. Set an example through your talent practices. Start with small changes in areas of your talent practice visible to all managers such as changing the CV review process or interviews
  6. Don’t make your D&I initiatives mandatory. Contributing to a more inclusive workplace should be something your people want to do, but if your D&I training is mandatory they’ll see it as another box to tick

Building a more diverse and inclusive workforce is hard and takes time. But there are a number of practical steps you can take to move the needle, without relying on unconscious bias training alone.

 

Your action step

If you need help building inclusive culture at scale and would like to learn more about how Inclusion Works from Hive Learning has helped 88% of employees from the likes of Dow Jones, Sun Life and many more take action against bias, we’d be happy to share our formula for behavior change. Just get in touch to request a demo.

 

With special thanks to our contributors:

 

About the Inclusion Works Digital Toolkit

Micromessages from Inclusion WorksWe all know that diverse teams deliver better results. And that inclusion creates the conditions for diverse teams to thrive. But as we’ve mentioned before, progress has stalled and we believe that’s because too often, D&I initiatives focus on changing processes rather than actions or mindsets. And often, they focus exclusively on the underrepresented group rather than bringing everyone along on the journey.

We believe that inclusion is a skill you can learn. And that’s why we created the Inclusion Works Digital Toolkit.

From knowing how to spot and stop bias from influencing your decision making, to understanding how to hear all voices in meetings and distribute feedback fairly, the Inclusion Works Digital Toolkit will give you the tools to be more inclusive, every day.

We’ll start your program by taking a pulse check of your organization to help you understand which areas you need to focus on most. Our flexible and agile program approach means you can mix and match the right content for your teams based on your most pressing priorities. We’ll then deliver your program using nudges to steer your people towards relevant, interactive bite-sized learning.

Our team of learning activation specialists will be with you at every step of the journey. We’ll use tried and tested techniques to adapt our programs to your culture, keeping engagement levels high and providing rich insights along the way.

And together, we’ll help you shift the dial on building a more inclusive culture.

If you want to find out more about how the Inclusion Works Digital Toolkit could help 88% of your employees take action against bias, get in touch with Sophie at sophie.oreilly@hivelearning.com.

 

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