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Is unconscious bias training effective? . . . Part 1   Recently updated !

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 her blog post, ‘Shining a spotlight on unconscious bias‘, for additional reading on this topic. 


Learning in the shadow of the pandemic

training and learning development survey 2020

In October 2020, amid all of the uncertainty this year has brought, we decided it would be good to know more about what’s going on for our customers and how they see the next 12-18 months of learning and development activities in their organisations. We were also intrigued to know a little about how things have been during the pandemic. So, we did an online survey.

You can read more about how we did the survey and who responded later. For now, we should say it wasn’t a rigorous ‘scientific’ process. We reached out to a selection of customers to see whether they would take part, then sent them the survey. We also shared the link via social media. In the end, we got 47 respondents. So, you should treat the results as more qualitative than quantitative, indicative rather than definitive.

outlook

Compared with this time last year, respondents were marginally more likely to feel ‘more optimistic’ (34%) than ‘less optimistic’ (26%) about the outlook for L&D activities in their organisation, though a simple majority of respondents felt ‘the same’ (40%).

“It’s been a good opportunity to recalibrate. I expect things will keep changing!”

“We’re planning 2021 to be the same as 2020 – totally remote – and will revert to normality as and when we can.”

[L&D activities have] certainly reduced for our organisation which is a shame. But I think it may well be changing as we all realise this is the new normal and working at home will continue.”

budgets

When it came to their organisational training budgets, fewer than one in ten respondents predicted an ‘increase’ (9%), though four out of ten expected it to ‘stay the same’ (40%). A sizeable minority of respondents said their budget looked likely to ‘decrease’ (30%), while others simply didn’t know (21%).

“The budget is significantly slashed for 2021 – we are really looking ahead to a much more robust business case for 2022 – evaluation is critical for this – what happened afterwards, what behaviours changed post the training not just the intention to change.”

methods

Most respondents expected the blend of training methods would change in their organisation (98%), with more online learning and development experiences taking the place of face-to-face ones. All of which makes perfect sense in the midst of a pandemic that has led to high levels of working from home (WFH).

It will be interesting to see the extent to which changes sustain in the post Covid-19 training landscape. Some respondents were clearly enthusiastic about what’s happened, while others were not quite so sure.

“Whilst there have been some negative impacts, I really like the fact [the pandemic] has forced or expedited different approaches and greater use of technology.”

“[The pandemic and WFH] has accelerated initiatives that support the ability to provide virtual/ online/ bite sized learning support, that would have taken a lot longer to implement if working business as usual.”

“As horrendous as the pandemic has been for so many people, for L&D in the NHS it has enabled virtual training to become a reality and will support more digitally enhanced delivery in the future.”

“I have been surprised at how well virtual workshops and conferences have worked – many more people are more accepting of it as a tool and it brings with it more equality and flexibility.”

“I still question if eLearning is as effective as face to face/ classroom/ experiential learning. To me it’s more of a ‘compliance, tick box’ exercise. Or am I just old fashioned?”

priorities

Selected from a list, the top three priorities training and learning development priorities respondents identified were diversity and inclusion (66%), resilience and employee wellbeing (64%), and inclusive leadership (57%).

It’s worth noting here that these priorities could well reflect the specific interests of our customers (the principal focus of our survey), rather than those of organisations in general at this time. With that said, it’s not difficult to see that many organisations will be facing unique and pressing challenges in these areas. Whether that’s in response to the pandemic and its impact on working life or because of other significant events, such as the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

working from home

In the first of our Covid-19 specific questions, we asked respondents roughly how many of their employees are currently working from home (WFH) for the majority of their working week. A majority of respondents, three out of five (60%), said that more than half of their workforce were currently WFH. At the top end of the scale, almost one in four respondents (23%) said that more than nine out of ten employees were WFH.

For those pondering the potential long-term impact of Covid-19 on activities like training and learning development, it’s important to note that every respondent expected more employees in their organisation will be WFH after the pandemic than did before. It is, of course, possible that face-to-face training could become one of the key ways that teams come together in the ‘new normal’, building group cohesion and team spirit, but going with online options will clearly represent the path of least resistance in a predominantly virtual workplace.

support for employees

On average, respondents gave their organisations 4.3 stars for the way they had supported employees and enabled them to do their best in the circumstances during the pandemic.

When reflecting on what else could have been done, or done better, respondents clearly recognised the unprecedented nature of the challenge represented by a global event of this kind.

“Given the sudden nature of working at home it would be challenging to say what could have been done better at the time… overall the feedback from staff has been that the organisational response has generally been positive and the interventions, communication and overall care for staff welcomed.”

“We have focused a lot actually and done largely a great job.”

“They have been quite inspirational in their handling of the situation.”

The two main areas of learning highlighted by respondents were:

  • Looking out for employee wellbeing and mental health, including how managers handled remote teams

“We underestimated the mental health impact of working from home, especially for those who live alone. Although we advised teams to have regular ‘virtual team meetings’ in the event not every team did this, and we should have monitored this.”

“Increase focus on well-being and engagement.”

“Staff surveys revealed that some staff did not receive the support from their line managers that we would have expected, which we are addressing.”

“Line manager engagement on a personal level rather than purely professional.”

  • Properly equipping employees for WFH (e.g. IT hardware, workstations, software)

“In hindsight we could have had a more efficient system of getting IT kit to people (this only took a few weeks to set up but was a cause of worry for some people).”

“Needs better IT, demanding software apps required for productive WFH are crippling many teams.”

“Risk assess workstations at home”

final thoughts

It’s clear that our survey respondents, like all of us, have been dealing with considerable upheaval and uncertainty in their working lives.

What also comes across is that they’ve not simply been battening down the hatches and waiting for the storm to pass, they’ve been adapting, trying out new approaches, and in many instances finding themselves pleasantly surprised with the results. Perhaps this is why there weren’t higher levels of pessimism about the outlook for L&D activities in the next year or so.

And, when medical science saves the day and brings this virus to heel, our survey suggests that lots of us don’t expect the world of work, and with that the ways we train, learn and develop together to ever go back to what they were.

“The pandemic has thrust us 10 years into the future.”

Training and learning development activities are going online like never before. It’s not just eLearning, it’s online training sessions and conferences. This means those creating content will need to find ways to hold an audience with access to emails and messaging, pressing tasks, and the myriad distractions of the internet. More than that, they will need to find ways to actively engage people, to help them feel and see things that will lead them to change the ways they behave and potentially even think. In that sense, the challenge for L&D professionals remains the same as ever; to help busy people learn and make a positive difference.

“We’ve already adapted hugely although it’s been a steep learning curve! It’s great to see the training sector have largely done the same, although I do have one contact refusing to take their training online (it certainly isn’t Enact). This absence of flexibility will influence me using them again.”

Which brings us to our last take-away from the survey results. The ‘new normal’ means new challenges for trainers and L&D professionals to help organisations address. Or at least, new versions of old challenges. A significant increase in WFH doesn’t just present practical ‘getting the job done’ hurdles for organisations to overcome, it brings a whole new dimension to nurturing shared values, to inclusion and helping people feel like part of a team, to coaching and helping them grow and fulfil their potential, and to looking after their emotional and mental wellbeing. As we contemplate the future, one thing’s for sure, there’s lots for us all to get stuck into.

“Biggest challenges are maintaining culture and values in an asynchronous remote working setup, without the opportunities for spur-of-the-moment, spontaneous coaching opportunities.”

“I think the interesting thing will be if / when we have more of a blend of associates who are home based, and office based. It means more effort will need to be put into inclusive meetings, etc.”

“Those who are creative problem solvers with high level of EQ have the opportunity to produce meaningful interventions.”

methodology

The online survey ran from 22 Oct to 5 Nov 2020. It was sent to 101 Enact Solutions customers who had been approached and expressed an interest in taking part. It was not a random sample. The link was also shared on social media.

In total there were 47 respondents. A majority of these were our customers, while 10 came from our social media postings.

We received responses from individuals working in organisations across a range of sectors:

  • Health, Hospital, Clinic, GP Surgery
  • Education
  • Energy, Chemical, Utilities
  • Consulting
  • Medical, Pharma, Biotech
  • Financial Services
  • Central Government
  • Manufacturing
  • Advertising/ Marketing/ PR
  • Aerospace & Defence
  • Banking & Securities
  • Local Government
  • Insurance
  • Legal
  • Retail
  • Telecommunications

Organisations ranged from SMEs to large multinationals.

David Allen


David Allen is Director of Impact at Enact Solutions.