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Why anti-discrimination and unconscious bias training often falls flat

Corporate anti-bias training was introduced in the US after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and legal reforms that movement brought about. Photo: Getty
Corporate anti-bias training was introduced in the US after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and legal reforms that movement brought about. Photo: Getty

Entrepreneur and business coach Sheryl Miller remembers sitting in an unconscious bias training session with a senior leadership team, including a director who acted like a bully.

“He had made a comment about my presence that day, saying that he was dutifully 'ticking a box’ – not in terms of my appointment, which had been sponsored by the CEO, but in terms of why he had asked me to come along to the session in the first place,” she says.

Miller’s experience summarises one of the key problems with unconscious bias training. For many, it is still seen as a tick-box exercise – an empty PR stunt to create the facade of a forward-thinking, inclusive company.

Corporate anti-bias training was introduced in the US after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and legal reforms that movement brought about. Worldwide, companies now spend over $8bn (£6bn) on unconscious bias training every year, according to data from McKinsey. These courses are intended to boost diversity and inclusion by making employees more aware of unconscious negative stereotyping, with the aim of stamping out discriminatory behaviour in the workplace.

The only problem is that it rarely works. According to a 2018 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the effectiveness of unconscious bias training, there is little evidence to suggest that it can alter or change behaviour. But why?

“From my experience, as a business coach to entrepreneurs and c-suite as well as organisations looking to improve their work culture, the training around discrimination and unconscious bias has not changed and does little in the way of offering solutions,” says Miller, author of Smashing Stereotypes: How To Get Ahead When You’re The Only _____ In The Room.

“Perhaps, one of the key reasons why such training falls flat is that it inadvertently puts participants into the roles of victim and oppressor. It induces shame on both sides,” she says.

“I’d say that the racial tensions that arose in summer 2020 did cause companies, business leaders, employees and individuals to think about how much – or how little - they have contributed to tackling discrimination and inequality on their own doorstep. But this has helped as well as hindered productive conversation,” Miller adds. “Conversations around race and D&I have become so tribalistic that it’s dangerously shutting down conversations, converting the issue into an elephant in the room.”

Unconscious bias training can also fall flat because it tends to be treated as a performative exercise too. Organisations may incorporate anti-bias training as they believe it will be a quick fix to a much larger diversity problem. Therefore, systemic and structural issues that allow biases to be perpetuated in the workplace are overlooked, like differences in opportunities and progression, unfair policies and poor treatment.

And although more companies are introducing mandatory training sessions on bias or discrimination, this approach can often make things worse. “Anti-discrimination training is most effective when people have actively chosen to attend and want to explore their own biases,” says career coach and diversity consultant Hanna Andersen at As We Are.

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“Where employees are mandated to attend, they are less likely to engage, and in some cases may even resent it,” she adds. “The main benefit to organisations of running anti-discrimination training is as a way of displaying their values to their staff and customers.”

So if training doesn’t work, how can businesses effectively address bias and discrimination in the workplace?

“I propose a new approach to dealing with unconscious bias,” Miller says. “Firstly, I advocate slow thinking. Don’t be so quick to trust your gut. Question and scrutinise your belief system. Secondly, expose yourself to difference – and lots of it. Encourage people in organisations to expand their corporate, industry and personal networks to deliberately expose themselves to different types of people.”

Miller also suggests creating a book club among colleagues where people can openly discuss sensitive issues relating to everyday discrimination. “It provides an essential platform upon which to base discussion,” she explains. “The most productive book clubs are ones that allow people to bring their authentic selves to the group – where there is space to communicate how they relate personally to the themes explored that may be eye-opening and educating.”

And one of the most important interventions to promote diversity and inclusion is to simply offer a safe and non-judgmental space for people within organisations to talk about discrimination. “Elicit meaningful debate, and invite people to share defining personal experiences,” says Miller.

Finally, it’s essential for companies to proactively work on improving their culture and take a tough stance on discrimination allegations.

“Discrimination is not something that can be trained away, it must be learned through the behaviours we observe in the environments we’re operating in,” Anderson adds.

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