Unconscious bias training: Does it work?

Unconscious bias training is often mentioned in the context of closing the gender pay gap, but does it work and if so, what types of training is most effective?

Lots of people joining hands in a circle representing diversity


In a bid to promote a diverse and inclusive workplace, some organisations are offering unconscious bias training to educate staff on how to prevent biases from impacting judgement, decision-making and business performance.

Unconscious biases are the views and opinions we hold about others that are outside of our conscious awareness and can be influenced by anything we have encountered throughout our lives, including upbringing, culture or personal experiences.

“Humans have a natural bias that could be explained as hardwired into our neurological systems,” explains Suki Sandhu OBE, founder and CEO of Audeliss, an executive search firm that specialises in diversity placements. “Unconscious bias training aims to educate employees on how to notice these natural biases and stop them from informing our subconscious to make irrational or uninformed decisions.”

Training can range from short videos to more extensive courses, yet the jury is still out as to its actual effectiveness. Recent research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that while unconscious bias training can be effective for reducing implicit bias, it is unlikely to eliminate it; and there is limited evidence as to whether the training can successfully change behaviours, although it is useful in raising awareness.

So should you be providing unconscious bias training to your workforce?

Not a magic bullet

“Employers should consider offering it to help their employees become more aware of the risks associated with unconscious bias, and more able to recognise when this may accidentally factor into their behaviour at work,” comments Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at employment law consultancy Peninsula. “It’s especially important to those who take an active role in the recruitment process as any bias in these scenarios could lead to certain applicants being unfairly overlooked.”

Paula Whelan, head of diversity and inclusion at RightTrack Learning, remarks that while unconscious bias training is not a magic bullet, it does help people become more aware of how their biases can impact on others. “Unconscious bias training gives individuals the opportunity to understand how their thoughts and feelings impact on behaviours in the workplace. It also gives people the tools to help manage their biases – particularly when they are making decisions that impact on individuals.”

However, Sandhu cautions that the training is complex and there is scepticism around its effectiveness. “Of course, it can be a vital tool to improve best practice in your corporation – and is unequivocally important for HR or hiring managers, but it is not the only component. Alternative training that is less intensive, such as diversity training or a cultural awareness course, could be the better option depending on your goals.”

There is also a risk that some organisations may view the training as more of a box-ticking exercise than anything else.

“Certain critics believe this training is simply a way for employers to ‘tick a box’, which demonstrates their commitment to improving diversity without ever making a change to existing business practices,” comments Palmer.

She also warns that, while training has the potential to improve employee attitudes and change mindsets, there is no guarantee this will happen. “Individuals may say all the right things during training sessions, but then proceed to revert back to their default mindset when they return to their work duties.”

Not the main dish

Sandhu adds that while unconscious bias training is a step in the right direction, it can be difficult for training to alter a natural process or habit that is unintentional and not even noticed. “With this in mind, you need to question the nature of the results this will yield for your company,” he remarks.

“Plus, not all employees react the same way to training and development, and not everybody will reap the same benefits, so unconscious bias training should be viewed as an add-on to other policies, not the main dish.”

There are many different approaches you can take to delivering unconscious bias training in the workplace, although a one-off training session will only go so far. “Employers who are really committed to preventing unconscious bias in their organisation are more likely to use a combination of online and more immersive face-to-face training, using real-life examples to get to the crux of the issue,” remarks Palmer.

This can be followed up by regular refresher courses to ensure the learning is embedded and remains in the forefront of employees’ minds.

Whelan agrees, adding: “Face-to-face training, in my experience, is the best approach as it gives delegates the opportunity to learn together, share experiences and support each other to make change. A half day introduces the concept of unconscious bias whereas longer sessions allow for more in-depth learning. We find the addition of drama, with professional actors, to be very powerful in developing an understanding of the impact of unconscious bias.”

Alongside training, organisations can implement a number of measures to ensure attempts to tackle bias in the workplace are successful.

“Diminishing bias starts from the very foundation of your business in your diversity and inclusion policy,” says Sandhu. “Ensuring your corporation champions these goals in their company culture, hiring process and day-to-day operations is what will fully nurture an inclusive environment. Training and development can definitely aid education and awareness, but it’s the fundamental core of your business, teamed with a diverse senior management team, that will truly make a difference.”

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