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The Trouble With (Most) Unconscious Bias Training

Interest in unconscious bias training has increased significantly in recent years, and it often seems to spike around high-profile altercations related to race, gender or religion. The organization-wide unconscious bias training launched by Starbucks in 2018 after their infamous Seattle store incident is a classic example, as well as training offered in police departments across the country in the wake of police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others and the associated Black Lives Matter protests.

At the same time, criticism of unconscious bias training has also increased along with its popularity. One of the most common criticisms is the perceived lack of effectiveness of this type of training. While we are strong proponents of unconscious bias initiatives in general, we actually agree with much of the criticism leveled at some of the approaches taken with this type of training.

The Trouble With Some Unconscious Bias Training

The problem isn’t putting a focus on unconscious bias, it’s that the focus is too often fleeting. Much of this training is treated as a compulsory exercise deemed sufficient—at least on its surface—to address a complex and deeply engrained problem.

Employees may sleepwalk their way through a training session that seems like just an item on a checklist to boost a company’s image,” says Christine Ro in an article for BBC Worklife. Ro echoes our criticism of the “one-and-done approach to training” that is often taken in the wake of high-profile incidents of bias, even racism, that some brands have been subject to. As Ro points out, “although this kind of training may be well-intended, a significant body of research suggests that it has limited effects on changing beliefs in the long term, or improving representation of minority groups in the workplace.” In fact, research suggests that this type of training may also even backfire, giving the false sense of security that once the training has been completed, the problem has been addressed. That is, of course, not the case.

How to Make Unconscious Bias Training Stick

So, if unconscious bias training often doesn’t have the intended effect, what’s to be done? As you might expect, our solution isn’t to do away with this type of training. Instead, the solution is to stop thinking of this type of training as a one-size-fits-all checklist item that will serve as a quick fix for unconscious bias problems.

Unconscious bias is subtle. Most people are unaware they even harbor such attitudes—hence the name. Moreover, unconscious bias often results from long-standing and deeply engrained cultural norms and beliefs. It’s simply not realistic to think an hour-long or even day-long training session can eradicate attitudes built up over a lifetime.

Tackling unconscious bias requires commitment, dedication, planning and iteration. What works for one organization may not work at all for others. Ultimately, companies get out of any training what they put into it, and that’s especially true with unconscious bias training.

Our Learning Over Time® approach to training is training that makes a real difference. Whether offered in-person, or virtually, our methodologies help clients reach the maximum number of employees, including senior leaders through customized delivery methods and rollout timelines that best fir their workplace environment and culture.

Isn’t it time to tackle training in a more holistic way? Be inclusive!

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Are you tired of workplace diversity training that does not link to business? Are you tired of tactics that don’t drive business results? InclusionINC has inclusion training solutions and strategic consulting that link inclusion to employee engagement, productivity, innovation and retention, moving inclusion beyond tactics to a critical business strategy.


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