Unconscious Bias Training - Does It Work?

4 August 2021
12 minute
Unconscious Bias Training - Does It Work

Unconscious bias affects many aspects of daily lives. Think about the time you bought a car or something from a big retail giant like Amazon - we seek out the best reviews so that we can give ourselves a pat on the back for having made ‘the right decision’.

In the workplace unconscious bias can affect us in many different ways. One example is candidate selection. Even something as simple as a name can give a completely skewed idea into how well that candidate would perform. This will be based on prejudices, sexism and in some instances overt racism which affects a candidate’s chances of securing a position in the company.

Over the last few years, many companies and organisations have tried to undo this bias by undergoing Unconscious Bias Training (UBT) garnering criticism and controversy in some quarters. The UK Civil Service for example has scrapped UBT as it ​​says “there is no evidence it changes attitudes.” This has equally been met with criticism from anti-racism campaigners asking the Government to not “backtrack on anti-racism training.”

In this guide we are going to take a closer look at what unconscious bias is, how unconscious bias training works and understand whether it is effective.

What is unconscious bias?

Known also as ‘implicit bias’, unconscious bias is often defined as a prejudice or unsupported judgements against or in favor of a person or group compared to another that is regarded as unfair. As a result of this conditioned thinking, certain people benefit whilst others are penalised.

One example of unconscious bias in the workplace saw researchers in 2016 and 2017 send out fake C.V’s and cover letters to 3,200 positions. “Despite demonstrating exactly the same qualifications and experience, the “applicants” with common Pakistani or Nigerian names needed to send out 60% more applications to receive the same number of callbacks as applicants with more stereotypically British names.”

There are of course other types of unconscious biases that can affect businesses, these include:

Affinity bias

This is when we have an unconscious tendency to get on with people who are like us. We tend to get along with people who look and share similar experiences to ours rather than getting involved in groups who look different from us. We do this because it is perceived to be harder to bridge the gap between those when diversity is present.

Affinity bias can lead managers to value without question the opinion of certain team members over those they feel they cannot relate to personally. This in turn can stop learning opportunities for both the business and individual as well as shun fresh perspectives.

Attribution bias

An attribution bias is a cognitive bias that refers to the systematic errors made when people evaluate or try to find reasons for their own and others' behaviors. People constantly make attributions - judgements and assumptions about why people behave in certain ways. For example, you may be cut off in a car journey and thus you blame the other driver for being rude and a bad driver. The reality could be that they are very late to a meeting, or in a rush to pick up their children at school.

In hiring, attribution bias may affect a candidate's ability to get the job because the interviewer deems them unfit for the role based on something on their C.V. or some form of unexpected behaviour in the interview.

Confirmation bias

You will have heard lots about confirmation bias in recent years. This is where we have a tendency to gather information that already supports our beliefs or theories. For example we may have a clear idea about driverless cars, thus we find evidence to support our own views about this technology rather than looking at the totality of information for or against this area.

The biggest issue with confirmation bias in the workplace is how relationships can break down or be built. A manager may feel a certain way towards an employee and is likely to behave differently with them (good and bad) compared to others.

Gender bias

This one is easier to understand, gender bias. This is where we will find that we have views about a person’s gender and thus we show favoritism to one gender over another.

We know that a more balanced workforce in terms of gender can lead to better problem resolutions, wider thinking across the board and develop better relationships with external parties.

Perception bias

In perception bias we are forming simplistic stereotypes and assumptions about certain groups of people. It can therefore be hard to bridge the gap between different groups of people and make objective judgements separate from the groups.

Perception bias can affect actions and decisions such as who we hire and who we promote, what advice we give, how we interact with certain groups and even how we conduct things like performance evaluations.

Halo effect

The halo effect is when one trait of a person or thing is used to make an overall judgement of that person or thing. One example of this can be the judgement that a good looking person in their photograph would also be a good person in real life. This is formed by one's individual preferences, prejudices, ideology, and social perception.

The main concern with the halo effect is that it can lead to differences in how employees are treated based on very little. From hiring to performance reviews, the halo effect can drastically change how someone views a person and how they actually work.

Ageism

This is the stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups based on their age. This could be casual or systemic in the workplace.

Ageism can mean that businesses miss out on experience and knowledge acquired over the years from older employees as well as fears of younger workers thinking that they don’t have a long term future within the business. Higher staff turnover and less experienced heads can have a negative impact across the board.

What is unconscious bias training?

To resolve the issues raised in the previous section, we may consider undergoing unconscious bias training as a way to combat all the different types of unconscious bias.

UBT has become very popular in recent years to help people and organisations navigate the professional world in how we deal with our biases. In particular with unconscious bias training, the aim is to reduce people’s racist, sexist, ageist and homophobic biases. The idea is to reduce these biases so that someone's biases are less likely to change their thinking and behaviour.

What is involved in unconscious bias training?

The training starts by addressing what unconscious bias is and where it comes from. Taking just one example from above, perception bias, we can begin to untangle what this is in the workplace and how it can easily be done without realisation.

The next step is to identify where unconscious bias comes from. This way, you can start to appeal to your staff in a way that is designed to help employees recognise when they might be acting or behaving on the basis of unconscious bias and equally, provide them with a way to challenge those assertions and counteract them.

For example, they may have never been exposed to diverse cultures beforehand, or they may have had a bad experience working with a group of people in the past. By highlighting what can be the triggers for these internal judgements, the candidate can begin to understand where it all comes from and how they can begin to start resolving it.

The third act is down to understanding how to reduce unconscious bias in their roles and throughout the organisation. This could be done with workshops, individual training or even group discussions to identify where unconscious bias can affect a team or individuals.

Whilst UBT has become a key exercise for many organisations over the last few years, one thing remains clear is that there is no standard format to bias training. Programmes can vary enormously from one organisation to another, so it is always best to seek out advice and gain an understanding of what these training packages offer.

There are several exercise examples of UBT in action. One such example is the IAT - Implicit Association Test that can be taken. It works by measuring an examinee’s reaction time during a word categorisation task. Then, an algorithm can calculate whether people have more positive or negative associations with a certain group – such as people of a different ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender. You can take this test developed by Harvard University here.

Another such test that can be used is the TAG game exercise when doing a group activity. The TAG game adapted from Fowler (2006) is an exercise where participants stick badges, in a variety of shapes, colours, and sizes, somewhere between their waist and neck.

People are then asked to form groups without any other indication of criteria and without talking to each other. This is repeated several times. Usually groups will be formed by the colours, shapes or patterns each participant has over any other criteria. Rarely are groups formed on anything else opening up the world of what unconscious bias brings about.

But is the training effective? Let’s take a closer look.

Is unconscious bias training effective?

For us to be able to understand if unconscious bias training is effective, we need to define what it is we are trying to achieve by making teams and ourselves undergo such training. We could for example be trying to raise awareness of unconscious bias that we have in our day-to-day lives as well as our professional lives, or we could be trying to make our workplaces more inclusive and less constrained by the problems organisations face by having unconscious bias.

Determining what you want from the training is going to be the key to understanding if the training has worked or will continue to work after the training has been delivered.

Under UBT, we should all expect to have a grasp of what unconscious bias is, but here are just some of the anticipated benefits we can expect from the training.

Raised awareness of negative implicit associations

The more we become aware of the negative implicit associations, the more we will find ourselves correcting these attitudes and form a wider, more comprehensive understanding of the people we are working with.

Empower employees to share diverse perspectives

If we have struggled to understand or bridge the gaps with those we have little in common with, we can see in UBT employees of diverse ethnicities feeling more open to share their experiences so that we can gain a better understanding.

Reduced prejudice

We should also start to see reduced prejudice in the workplace and in our personal lives too - thanks to a heightened awareness of how this happens.

Improved recruitment and retention rates

There will be implicit benefits coming from the UBT in the recruitment area by simply widening the talent search. For example, the less prejudice there is in towards someone's name, the more we get to see a candidate’s ability to perform the job in the skills that they have.

Greater innovation and creativity

Once again, this is thanks to people being given opportunities at the recruitment phase leading to new possibilities of giving those with different skill sets and experience an opportunity to shine. We know that the more diverse a workforce, the more productive and profitable a business will be.

It is important to remember that UBT must be treated fairly and it won’t resolve all the issues you may encounter with prejudice in the workplace. UBT should never be considered as a one-off training activity - remember that you are trying to re-train the ideas and unconscious biases someone has held for a very long time. It needs to be regularly delivered in order to maintain the good work that it can do and equally form part of a larger training programme used to remove bias.

Why unconscious bias training doesn’t work

Following on from that last point about needing UBT to be successful, there has been a lot of criticism about the training and many questions raised whether it works or not.

The American Scientific Journal called it, “well motivated, but there’s little evidence that it leads to meaningful changes in behavior.” There are a few key reasons why many believe that UBT doesn’t work. These include:

1. Lack of evidence in long term changes

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) which was developed by Harvard professor Edward Chang saw that participants were less likely to change their behaviour three weeks after training and within six weeks saw that those who took the training were less likely to have a different attitude when compared to those who didn’t take the training.

It remains the case that to this day, “none of the IAT interventions has been shown to result in permanent, long-term reductions of implicit bias scores or, more importantly, sustained and meaningful changes in behavior (i.e., narrowing of racial/ethnic clinical treatment disparities).”

This does lead to questions about how UBT can change perceptions over the long term, especially if training is only based on short-term or one off sessions.

2. UBT done the wrong way can have negative consequences

There is a wider concern that UBT being administered incorrectly can have the opposite impact. Think of those “lukewarm” diversity training seminars that you are forced to sit through rather than want to sit through. These seminars can create anger and wider frustration amongst white employees as they can feel as if they are being called out as racist.

This calls into question whether or not implicit bias training is useful at best, at worst it could exacerbate the issues it is trying to resolve.

3. UBT can be seen to justify bad behaviour

Finally, there is a wider concern that UBT can be seen as encouraging bad behaviour - especially by those who take these short courses and then find ways to excuse their bad behaviour as an “involuntary act of bias”. No real change has occurred, but one main difference is that these people feel empowered to continue with overtly prejudiced views as some sort of knock back to those experiencing challenges.

Conclusion

Hopefully this guide has given you more insight into the world of unconscious bias and how to use tools such as UBT and IAT to help people understand and change their behaviours. 

It is important to remember however that, it is simply not possible to change the bias of people but they can be provided with practices which improve equality and inclusion in the workplace.

The Thomas assessment suite of tools can be used to help with diversity in recruitment. With years of experience in psychological assessments and training packages, Thomas can help you recruit and build teams that are more inclusive and focus on behaviour, attitudes and skills. If you would like to learn more, please speak to one of our team.