Inclusive leadership


Is unconscious bias training effective? . . . Part 2 1

Examining unconscious bias learning outcomes.

Last month unconscious bias made the news again after KPMG’s UK Chair, Bill Michael said in a zoom meeting to hundreds of employees that he thought unconscious bias was “complete crap”. – Financial Times.

In a recording of the virtual meeting which was leaked online, we hear Michael say: “I think unconscious bias is complete crap, complete and utter crap . . . There is no such thing as unconscious bias, I don’t buy it. Because after every single unconscious bias training that has ever been done, nothing’s ever improved.” – YouTube.

Shocked at his comments, some KPMG staff shared their thoughts anonymously via an app during the meeting. One employee wrote, “There’s no such thing as unconscious bias?! Are you joking? Please do your research before just making such statements. Check your privilege.”

In addition, when discussing the impact of the pandemic on employee lives, Michael said, “You can’t play the role of victim unless you’re sick . . . don’t sit there and moan about it”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Michael no longer works at KPMG(!). After apologising to staff first verbally and then via email, he stepped aside from his role when KPMG launched an independent investigation, before resigning shortly afterwards. 

Whilst the above occurrence, is not the focus of this blog, Michael’s inaccurate supposition that ‘nothing’s ever improved’ after unconscious bias training is what I want to talk about today.

It’s such a fascinating statement because it points to the classic misunderstanding people have around the ‘effectiveness’ of unconscious bias training: 

The expectation that training will result in automatic behaviour change (a reduction of unconscious bias and discrimination in the workplace). And when this doesn’t happen, people can become disillusioned, disparage training and write the topic off as a whole (as evidenced above).

This is highly problematic because it stops organisations seeing what the training does achieve – awareness raising; and how important this is in the process of working towards behaviour change. It is often the first step and the foundation upon which all subsequent work in this area is built on.

Ask yourself: How can people change their bias-based behaviours, if they’re not aware of them? . . . If they’re not aware of how potentially harmful they can be, to both individuals and organisations as a whole? They can’t, can they?! You have to have knowledge of a problem in order to take steps to do something about it; in order to facilitate positive behavioural change. 

This is something I talked about in detail in my last blog – Part 1 of the effectiveness of unconscious bias training. I explained that because unconscious biases are formed as a result of a lifetime of experiences and media exposure, they understandably take education, practise, time etc to dismantle. Unconscious bias training is just one small step – the educational, awareness-raising part of that journey.

So how do we solve the disconnect of people or organisations misunderstanding what unconscious bias training can achieve? The answer is learning outcomes! Both training providers and clients need to be clear on what the learning outcomes of any training will be.

‘So what types of learning outcomes can employers expect from quality training providers?’, I hear you ask. To answer this, I’ll be looking to Enact Solutions and their unconscious bias training programme. The reason for this is that Enact Solutions have successfully delivered unconscious bias training to thousands of employees since 2013 and they have an excellent reputation because of the quality of their training. They use drama-based, experiential learning which is extremely creative, interactive, with business-relevant content.

I’ve also personally attended Enact Solutions’ unconscious bias training, can attest to the quality of it and seen other individuals and organisations take part in and be similarly enlightened by it. I was genuinely blown away by it, from the expert facilitation, to the use of characters and the interactive content. The training was so powerful and raised mine and other employees’ awareness and understanding of what a complex phenomenon unconscious bias is and the adverse impacts it can have on people and organisations. 

For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to use an evaluative report from an unconscious bias workshop Enact Solutions ran last year, which is representative of their training as a whole on this topic. The workshop in question, was delivered to a group of of directors and senior managers totalling 22 people. The training was highly interactive, blended multimedia digital material, anonymous polls and group discussions with excellent facilitation. Participants filled in an online feedback form after the training, and then a follow-up survey six weeks later to further evaluate the legacy of the training.

learning outcomes:

✓  Greater understanding and awareness of unconscious bias.

✓  Appreciation of the potential adverse impact unconscious bias has on individuals and organisations.

✓  Reflection on their own potential personal biases.

✓  An introduction to ways to challenge personal bias and minimise its impact on decision-making.

✓  Increased confidence to engage in honest conversations about bias at work.

✓  Their own individual action or pledge to take forward after the session.

As you can see the learning outcomes do not overpromise what the training can achieve; there are no unrealistic expectations that the training will eliminate unconscious bias in the company and that the workforce and senior leadership positions will be representative of society. That behaviour change work will come later for an organisation. 

This unconscious bias training is about the first step of the process: raising awareness and understanding; of why unconscious bias exists, its potential impacts, self-reflection, ways to converse about, challenge and minimise bias. It is not about rushing the process, but about the steps that need to be taken first, to begin the journey. It is about creating the foundation from which change will be built on.

results:

  • 100% had witnessed or experienced behaviours at work within the last 12 months that point to potential biases. 
  • 100% appreciated the importance of unconscious bias after the training.
  • 100% felt inspired to make a positive difference back in the workplace.
  • 93% had better recognition of how personal bias may influence their actions.
  • 93% increased their understanding of ways to reduce bias in their workplace.

In the follow-up survey (6 weeks later):

  • 100% still felt inspired to make a positive difference back in the workplace. 
  • 93% continued to recognise the importance of unconscious bias and had ideas about what they can do about it.
  • 100% were more alert to their own personal biases.
  • 93% were more alert to the biases of others.
  • 86% self-reported that they hadn’t done any of the behaviours that point to potential biases since the training.
  • 71% had done all or some of the actions they had planned as part of the training.
  • 36% had identified a situation or behaviour at work since the training where they thought unconscious bias was a factor (64% had not been in such a situation) and . . .
  • . . . 100% of these employees then engaged in a ‘honest’ or ‘difficult’ conversations in response to it.
  • 50% had engaged in ‘casual’ conversations about unconscious bias at work. 

As you can see, the results speak for themselves as to how effective the training is in terms of raising staff awareness.

recommendations:

Within the evaluative report, Enact Solutions created a section entitled ‘Recommendations’ (a set of suggestions if you will), for the company going forwards, post training. I particularly like this addition, because it highlights Enact Solutions’ passion for the organisation to continue their journey on this topic, even after their training responsibilities have been delivered.

The recommendations re-enforce that the training is a, ‘start rather than the end of the journey.’ It identifies that further training for employees and managers, ‘who can lead by example and have the authority to change things,’ can be a next step. 

It states, ‘it’s important to keep the conversations going’, so that participants can reflect on their own and others’ biases and details that one useful way of doing this is through the sharing of informative articles and videos. 

Furthermore, the report delineates the more complex, behavioural change part of the process: ‘Identify where the greatest risks from unconscious bias are in the organisation’s operations,’ and ‘then take steps to reduce its impact’. The recommendations explain that it is, ‘not about setting targets’, but being clear on, ‘the differences the organisation wants to see as a result of its efforts,’ and deciding on a, ‘set of metrics’, that the organisation is committed to changing over time. 

The report details that any changes to procedures and processes should be shared within the organisation, thus ‘help[ing] people move the issue from the theoretical to the real world.’

in conclusion

‘Is unconscious bias training effective?’ – this was the title and question posed in this two-part blog series. Part 1 evidenced it is effective for raising awareness (see BIT report and meta-analysis). Part 2 then looked at a representative case study of Enact Solutions’ unconscious bias training and similarly confirmed and showed how powerful training is in raising awareness.

So why is this important in the wider world?

What significance does it bear?

And why must organisations take heed of this information?

In a world which has so much inequality and inequity (something the events of 2020-21 have brought into sharper focus and raised public levels of understanding on) and with biases considered the root of discriminatory behaviours, for organisations to not raise awareness about this subject is unacceptable and says something very significant:

It says they are accepting of and allowing these biased-based behaviours to continue.

If companies don’t raise awareness of unconscious biases, in order to try and challenge them, if they don’t invest in unconscious bias training, then they continue to perpetuate a climate where unconscious biases can go unchecked. 

We know that biases can adversely impact areas such as recruitment, promotion, allocation of work and staff development (for more info see this blog). We know biases can negatively affect employee well-being, productivity, inclusion and retention. There is clearly a legal, moral and financial business case for addressing the complex phenomenon that is unconscious bias. And unconscious bias training, which is effective for raising awareness, is the first step in that very exciting and important journey.

Jemma Houghton


This is the second in a two-part series of blog posts about the ‘effectiveness’ of unconscious bias training, written by Jemma Houghton, one of our Associates at Enact Solutions. Check out Part 1 here.

For additional reading on unconscious bias, check out our recent blog: ‘Shining a spotlight on unconscious bias‘. 


Is unconscious bias training effective? . . . Part 1 1

Addressing the ‘Written Ministerial Statement on Unconscious Bias Training’.

In December 2020 the UK Government published a ‘Written Ministerial Statement on Unconscious Bias Training‘, in which it ‘concluded that unconscious bias training does not achieve its intended aims,’ would ‘be phased out in the Civil Service,’ and ‘encourage[d] other public sector employers to do likewise.’

The announcement sent shock waves across the news, training providers and businesses. My own reaction on first reading, was one of disbelief and confusion. I’ve attended unconscious bias training, continued my reading on the subject and found the learning incredibly invaluable. The more I learn, the more it confirms how vital unconscious bias training is for businesses and their employees.

As HR Magazine explains: ‘The point of unconscious bias training is to make us aware of the implicit biases we all carry . . . reduce and ultimately eliminate discriminatory behaviours of the sort laid out in the Equality Act 2010.’

With discriminatory behaviour costing the UK economy £127 billion in lost output each year (Public Finance, 2018), unconscious bias is a term every business and staff member needs to understand. It impacts decision-making in areas such as recruitment, pay, allocation of work, staff development and promotion. It results in less diverse workforces, lower returns and affects employee wellbeing.

So why would the Cabinet Office issue such a strong, startling and stark statement against unconscious bias training? 

Well, it comes as a result of a report by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT – which interestingly is partly owned by the UK Cabinet Office), who were commissioned by the Government Equalities Office, ‘for a summary of the evidence on unconscious bias and diversity training’. The BIT report states, ‘there is currently no evidence that this training changes behaviour or improves workplace in terms of representation of women, ethnic minorities or other minority groups in position of leadership or reducing pay inequalities.’

Sounds pretty bleak doesn’t it?!

Before unconscious bias training is relegated, cast aside and simply left for dead(!), let’s pause and take a moment. As with anything, we must review all of the information (the statement, report, meta-analysis etc) to try to understand why and how this conclusion could have come into being and assess the validity of it.

The Written Ministerial Statement has been the subject of much conversation amongst experts in the field and on analysis has been criticised for a number of reasons. There are many points we could discuss, however for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on just a few. On reading the BIT report we discover important information which the Written Ministerial Statement worryingly does not reference or explain:

For example the BIT report states: ‘The evidence for UBT’s ability effectively to change behaviour is limited. Most of the evidence reviewed did not use valid measures of behaviour change.’

This means that unconscious bias training has not been found to not change behaviour, but that the measures used in most of the studies were not considered scientifically rigorous enough to determine that.

The Written Ministerial Statement also makes no reference to the section in the BIT report entitled: ‘Limitations of the evidence base’, which identifies (amongst others) the following issues:

  • The ‘training programme design varies hugely’.
  • ‘There is a substantial skew in the evidence towards studies conducted upon university student populations rather than employees in a work setting.’
  • ‘There is also an overrepresentation of US-based studies.’

Why are the variations in design important? Well, as the BIT report states: ‘This makes it difficult to pool data and to identify whether a particular strategy does in fact work better than another.’ For example training variations included face-to-face, e-learning, lecture-style, interactive, mandatory, voluntary, one-off sessions and ongoing training. Different types of training yield different results. The variations speak to the quality of the training; and as with all training, quality is key.

The report also noted that that the participants were ‘disproportionately students (82%)’, as opposed to employees in work-based settings and so it is, ‘inadvisable to generalise findings to the general population’. For the government to make the conclusion it made, based on a report from a meta-analysis, where such large numbers of the participants were not of the relevant target group, in the relevant setting or country (over-representation of US-based studies) is really quite staggering. As the BIT report summarises (but again the Written Ministerial Statement makes no mention of): ‘There is a need for robust, repeated behavioural studies of UBT interventions in UK workplaces before the field can reach consensus on what definitely works and what does not.’

The thing that concerns me most though is the notion made by the Cabinet Office that if unconscious bias training does not change behaviour, then it is simply ineffective and should be abandoned. This belief is simplistic, limiting and ill-conceived, as it doesn’t take into consideration the complexities of unconscious bias, how training is one step of a much larger process and the potential benefits this process can ultimately go on to achieve. Here’s why . . .

Anyone who has any understanding of unconscious bias knows that these unintentional stereotypes and people preferences are formed as a result of a lifetime of experiences and media exposure. They therefore and understandably take time, education, practise etc to dismantle. 

Obviously the ultimate goal is for workplaces to root out bias-based behaviours, reduce and eliminate discriminatory practises, so that organisations are diverse and fairly representative of society, both within the general workforce and in leadership positions (eg representation of women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, people with caring responsibilities etc).

However that’s the point: it’s the goal, the end-game. Any unconscious bias training provider worth their salt knows that unconscious bias training is a process. It is not a one workshop fix-all solution. Any company which promises behaviour change and an end to discriminatory practices, as a result of a one-off unconscious bias training session, can not deliver this and should be avoided at all costs.

So what can unconscious bias training do? Well, what the BIT report does find is that, ‘UBT is effective for awareness raising’, when using, ‘advanced training designs such as interactive workshops or longer term programmes to reflectively reduce biases,’ and ‘UBT can be effective for reducing implicit bias’.

And this is where the process starts.

We start by learning what unconscious bias is, why it happens and the dangers of it. We raise our awareness. We acknowledge we all have unconscious biases. We reflect on our own and we start to recognise how they influence our and others’ behaviours. We look at our workplace practices. We examine where unconscious bias can creep in and we change our policies accordingly. We review, we evaluate, we continue to make changes. And all of this takes time, happens over time and is an ongoing process. 

It is unacceptable that the Written Ministerial Statement places no value or understanding of this. 

Experts have also criticised the Written Ministerial Statement because as HR Magazine says, ‘no ulterior plans to tackle workplace discrimination seem to have been put in place’, despite the government claiming to be, ‘determined to eliminate discrimination in the workplace’. Lucille Thirlby from the FDA civil servant’s union asked what the scrapped unconscious bias training was going to be replaced with because: “How will they ensure people are not discriminated against?” – BBC News. It’s an important question, which for now, continues to go unanswered.

Amongst the online discussion, is Frank Starling’s piece for Forbes entitled: ‘Why UK Ministers Should Rethink Their Decision To End Unconscious Bias Training’. His writing beautifully and expertly details the value of unconscious bias training within a larger process. He identifies it as a tool which helps to raises awareness so that future conversations and work can be done to mitigate the negative impacts of unconscious bias.

He says: ‘Without a nuanced look at how unconscious bias training works in conjunction with other D&I tools, and without a proposed alternative, the announcement sets a bad example . . . scrapping a single tool because it is deemed ineffective on its own is shortsighted. You need a variety of tools to tackle a complex task . . . Unconscious bias training is one approach to starting conversations around the biases we all hold, that can hold us back.’

He goes on to say: ‘Unconscious bias training sparks a conversation and raises awareness, but it cannot dismantle centuries of structural racism, ableism and sexism. So what can? A multi-faceted and collaborative approach . . . The organisations that understand the complexity of dismantling structural oppression will require a complex set of tools are the ones moving in the right direction.’

So, in summary, when we try to answer the question, ‘Is unconscious bias training effective,’ when considering if it removes workplace inequality and discrimination caused by unconscious biases? The short answer, as the government found, is of course not. 

However, the longer, more pertinent answer, when we understand that unconscious bias training is an integral part of a much longer process and as evidenced by this blog is yes . . . Yes it is effective, because it’s the first step in that journey and one which needs to be taken. 

Jemma Houghton


This is the first in a two-part series of blog posts about the ‘effectiveness’ of unconscious bias training, written by Jemma Houghton, one of our Associates at Enact Solutions. Check out Part 2: Examining unconscious bias learning outcomes here.

If you’re interested in learning more about unconscious bias, have a read of our blog, ‘Shining a spotlight on unconscious bias‘.