Organisational Development

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‘.

Virtual Shindig and the power of laughter: the answer to your works xmas do!

Ladies and gentlemen, hands up who needs a night of fun? It has been soooooo long since we’ve all been out, right? I long for the days when we could go to a comedy club, watch stand-up and just laugh the night away. Who else remembers that?!

I miss treating myself to a lunch out with a colleague, having a chat, a chuckle and leaving work at the office for a bit. Wouldn’t post-work dinner and drinks be glorious right about now (!) as the start of the holiday season begins . . . 

Colourfully-lit Christmas trees are appearing in people’s windows and sparkly outdoor lights brighten the dark December skies. It fills me hope, but I also really miss people and miss doing fun things. [Quietly weeps!] Who’s with me in that?

I’m realising we need to do everything we possibly can to lift our spirits. We need to get creative, find work-arounds and plan some fun activities! 

That’s why I’m so excited to talk to you about Virtual Shindig: Enact Solutions’ absolutely brilliant, creative answer, to this year’s works xmas do! 

Virtual Shindig is a virtual night out, from the comfort and safety of your own home! It’s a chance for organisations to celebrate their employees’ phenomenal work and thank them for their incredible efforts this year. It’s 90 minutes of good old-fashioned fun – we’re talking a festive extravaganza filled with comedy, interactive games, awards and a few surprise celebrity appearances! 

Are you hooked yet? 

Virtual Shindig is all about the feel-good factor you get from watching a xmas show or film. The power of group laughter to create joy, facilitate wellbeing and connection. All our work at Enact Solutions is rooted in science and Virtual Shindig is no different. Laughter is increasingly being studied by the scientific community as the fascinating health and psychological benefits laughter brings emerges . . .

Laughter is wonderful for stress relief‘, because it reduces cortisol (stress hormone), anxiety, depression and releases endorphins in the brain. It also ‘makes you more open to new people and helps you build and strengthen relationships.’ – Psychology Today.

This means that work activities which facilitate laughter, not only contribute positively to mental health, but are perfect team-building and bonding exercises for colleagues. ‘Laughing together is something that improves team collaboration and stimulates innovation. It makes us feel more bonded as a team and as a consequence our creative guards come down, leading to more expansive idea generation.’ – BBC News

Stanford University Lecturer, Naomi Bagdonas who has been studying comedy for 5 years has this to say: “Some people believe this is too serious a time to laugh, but this is when we need humour more than ever. With this global pandemic, the shift to remote working, loneliness and depression rising precipitously, many of us have never felt so disconnected. When we laugh with someone – whether through a screen or 2m apart – we get this cocktail of hormones that strengthens our emotional bonds in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Studies show it makes us more resilient, creative and resourceful.” – The Guardian. 

We have endured so much this year, both professionally and personally and we need a way to release this tension. Virtual Shindig has been designed to be an evening of light-hearted banter. It’s a tonic of an event, which connects team-members through laughter and builds resilience. We’re delighted to see so many companies booking Virtual Shindig under their staff wellbeing budgets.

We’ve organised everything, so you don’t need to worry about a thing. The normal stresses of which venue to pick and what menu to choose are now obsolete! Your company will come together in the best way we know how (yes that’s Zoom in 2020!) and have some feel-good, festive fun.

We’ve got laugh-out-loud topical sketches, performed by outstanding actors. There’ll be competitions, quizzes and prizes. And we’ll personalise everything, tailoring your works xmas do specifically to your workplace. It’s about bringing your employees together in a team celebration, with interactive shoutouts and in-jokes galore. Work friends will kick back, relax, have a giggle and a good time together.

So who are the hosts? Only the brilliant, comedic, double act: Tam Ryan and Marvyn Dickinson – you might recognise them off the telly! Both have appeared in Coronation Street and between them have starred in Emmerdale, Cold Feet, Waterloo Road etc.

Tam and Marv have a strong background in comedy and will be mixing the world of work with panto, bringing you a brilliantly bonkers evening, chock-full of comedy craic! They’ve got tons of experience, having appeared in many a theatre production and stand-up. Tam most recently played Buddy in the hit comedy, ‘Elf The Musical’, starring alongside Kym Marsh and Martine McCutcheon! 

Can you feel your xmas spirit growing?!

For one week only Tam will be revising his role in ‘Elf The Musical’ in Blackpool, so we have the amazing Lee Toomes joining Marv for our comedy double act. Lee recently toured in ‘The Full Monty’, is often seen on TV, including Peaky Blinders and Shameless and is a panto regular!

Have we mentioned that we’re raising money for charity too?! For every booking, we’ll be donating £50 to the wonderful charity ‘500 Acts of Kindness‘, founded by national treasure Julie Hesmondhalgh, aka Corrie’s beloved Hayley Cropper!

500 Acts of Kindness is: ‘A fundraising group where 500 people donate a pound a week to give £500 to a person, family or organisation in need.’ It was set up in 2017 by Julie and her friend Chris Malvern and since then has raised close to £100,000 in donations. As this inews article explains, donations have helped: ‘women fleeing domestic violence, bereaved parents and families overwhelmed by rent arrears.’ We’re super proud to be supporting it, especially at a time when so many people have been financially devastated by the pandemic. 

The performing arts industry has also been hit very hard this year. Virtual Shindig is a way for us to offer our talented creative freelancers work, at a time when many of their Christmas tours have sadly been cancelled. They are the heart of our organisation and we’re so excited to be working with them on this project. 

Leading on and the visionary behind Virtual Shindig is none other than Helen Lacey, author of ‘Let’s Talk to Mummy’s Tummy’ and Enact Solutions’ Creative Producer! Helen’s spark for Virtual Shindig ignited in September after she saw how many shows and work events were being cancelled. Concerned about the impact on peoples’ resilience and wellbeing and being passionate about bringing lightness and laughter into people’s lives, Virtual Shindig blazed into being!

It’s been non-stop since then as we’ve been making creative content, promoting Virtual Shindig and receiving lots of bookings! We’ve chatted with Kaye Adams on BBC Radio Scotland, appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Somerset and been interviewed by the BBC Business Website team! 

“This is something that will bring work colleagues together in laughter, you know, just proper belly laughs, that’s what we’re really aiming for,” said Helen Lacey on BBC News.

As well as fun and frolics, Virtual Shindig is about something special – offering companies a way to say a heartfelt thank you to their teams, for all the work they’ve done under incredibly challenging circumstances in 2020. With big, gold, BAFTA style envelopes, we’ll be announcing winners of special awards and celebrating individual and collaborative successes! It’s a celebratory end-of-year works party which reflects on and honours staff for everything they have achieved this year.

As CIPD says: ‘Christmas can be a great opportunity for employers to reward staff for their hard work and show they are valued. It’s also a chance for co-workers to relax and socialise with each other, which can boost morale and engagement.’

Virtual Shindig runs from 9th December 2020 to mid/late January 2021. Companies can choose whether to finish 2020 on a high, or kick start the new year with a fun event! We have time slots throughout the day and evening, but if our times don’t suit, please get in touch and we’ll try our best to accommodate you. We’re receiving bookings every day, so don’t delay!

We can facilitate groups of all different sizes, from 30 employees up to 600! Prices start from £1500 depending on group size and don’t forget staff parties can be a tax deductible expense!

After booking your Virtual Shindig, all you need to do is pop on your xmas hat, wrap some tinsel round your shoulders and let us entertain you!

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and New Year,

Jemma Houghton

Jemma Houghton is one of our Associates at Enact Solutions. She’s been blogging for us on a number of topics and is really passionate about raising awareness and having conversations on resilience and well-being.