Buyer Beware: The Truth Behind Unconscious Bias Training

Consulting companies like Cook Ross have become rich off it. Companies are running towards it like hipsters to food trucks in San Francisco. What is “it”? It’s the newest, brightest and most trendy trinket in the diversity and inclusion toolkit: unconscious bias training. As the Founder of my own Diversity and Inclusion consultancy, one might think that I should jump on this roadshow as this is where the money is. However, what I know deep down from being both a consultant and a practitioner in roles across many of Silicon Valley’s top global companies is that most unconscious bias training distracts and detracts from progress in the diversity and inclusion space, allocating budget and time to something that often lacks the follow-up needed to assess long-term behavior change. All in all, today’s efforts are more often than not leaving unfinished business, rather than all-encompassing unconscious bias efforts, in our corporate workplaces.

For those unfamiliar with this shiny offering, it arose in popularity in 2014 after the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s infamous visit to Silicon Valley, in which he pushed Google and other tech companies to release their workforce diversity numbers. Of course, Google went a step further to release its own unconscious bias video. At this point, most, if not all, of these companies have implemented company-wide unconscious bias efforts, aimed at educating its workforce on the science behind the inherent brain patterns that trigger these biases. However, two years later, little to no progress has been made in diversity in Silicon Valley. This fact begets the question as to what has really changed within these companies and beyond. In my opinion, it is only a few trite things, which range from the hiring of high profile directors, who often have no team and no real budget, to commitment of dollars to external diversity partnerships to this buzzword of unconscious bias training that still has its roots in almost every company’s budget across America.

While unconscious bias training has validity as a supplementary tool to educate and provide awareness, it is not a stand-alone solution to years of homogeneous hiring. In fact, there is no single solution. Instead, it is a combination of measures, such as cross-functional accountability metrics and hiring goals, which will bring about real change. Just as in any other function, such as Sales and Marketing, what gets measured, gets done. And this couldn’t be truer than in the world of diversity. There is also the fact that a group of Harvard and Tel Aviv University researchers recently found that mandatory diversity training is not only ineffective, but can also be detrimental to diversity efforts. This is especially so as it pertains to improving the number of minorities and women in managerial ranks. In addition, as Dobbin and Kalev state in the Harvard Business Review article, “Why Diversity Programs Fail”, “It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two [emphasis by me], and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.” The authors go on to state that the positive effects often only last for such a short time due not only to the mandatory aspect of it, but also due to the negative tone that emphasizes legal repercussions.

With the above in mind, it brings to light the additional caveat that diversity training, such as unconscious bias, needs to be voluntary in order to be successful. Time and time again companies look at unconscious bias as the magic bullet to years of challenges in this space, thinking that education will lead to a behavior change. This way of thinking, however, overly simplifies an issue that may begin in the brain, but carries quickly over to the heart, resulting in visceral reactions carried out in every day actions. Thus, the real value of this work is in addressing the emotional, raw and messy aspects of the often-unintended outcomes of unconscious bias, such as subtle and overt racism and gender discrimination. These are real and complex topics that impact each and every one of us, not only in the workplace, but also in our communities. This fact is evidenced from the Black Lives Matter movement, which has made its way into every one of our homes across America. The Millennials, a generation that has grown up in a time in which there are little to no boundaries between work and home, are bringing this topic into their workplaces, making it harder and harder to ignore the real emotions and consequences thereof associated with topics such as race. As I see it, these topics will continue to surface and polarize this country’s workplaces and beyond until people begin to have the uncomfortable conversations needed to address race, gender and all that lies in the grey area of the emotional story behind unconscious bias.

In short, while unconscious bias training may be the hottest offering, it is not the most effective, especially when viewed as a stand-alone solution to a complicated and multi-faceted dilemma. The lack of improvement in diversity numbers to date clearly supports this statement. Dobbin and Kalev’s research further supports this notion, providing the data needed to support the fact that it is indeed time for a change in the way in which diversity training is both delivered and contextualized. The political and social climate of today, which is wrought with tension and racial strife, calls for the need not only for education but for real change. While unconscious bias training addresses the need for education, it often neglects the need for change and this is where progress will be made. So, the next time your company discusses the need for unconscious bias training, be acutely aware of those programs and methods that leave unfinished business lingering in your workplaces. All in all, it’s time for some more creative solutions to this longstanding and complicated diversity dilemma and there couldn’t be a better time than the present to do so.

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