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Unconscious bias training – why it does work in business

Illustration of cogs inside a brain, demonstrating unconscious bias - picture courtesy of Mohamed Hassan, PXHere
Suzanne Locke 23 February 2023
In an old riddle given to children decades ago, a father and son are rushed to hospital after a car crash. When the boy is taken in for an operation, the doctor says, “I cannot operate, because this is my son.” How is this possible? The doctor is a woman; the boy’s mother. 
We all have biases: how a person thinks depends on their life experiences. But sometimes we have beliefs and views about other people, based on social or identity groups, that might not be right or reasonable.
Put simply, bias means “the fact of preferring a particular subject or thing” but the preferred definition today, according to Collins dictionary, is “the action of supporting or opposing a particular person or thing in an unfair way, because of allowing personal opinions to influence your judgment”.

Naming the bias problem

An unconscious bias (that the person with the bias is not aware of) can influence decisions in recruitment, promotion, and performance management, Collins says. This is also known as implicit bias.
Unconscious bias could be about age, authority, beauty, gender, names – even height.
In a study carried out from 2016-17, researchers sent fake CVs and cover letters for 3,200 jobs. Despite showing identical qualifications and experience, applicants named ‘Tariq’ or ‘Adeola’ had to send 60 percent more applications to get the same number of callbacks as applications by ‘James’ and ‘Emily’.
Unconscious bias training (UBT) is a key tenet of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work, such as that carried out by Aurora50.
It is not a standalone solution but can be combined with pragmatic and ongoing solutions to bias (more on this later).
Aurora50 uses unconscious bias training in Table Talks, a series of curated group conversations that unlock the power of candid discussion to allow everyone to feel heard.

Why we need to understand our own biases

  • Avoid errors: Bias can lead to errors in judgment and decision-making. If you are aware of your own biases, you can take steps to avoid these errors and improve your performance.
  • Enhance decision-making: Bias can cloud your judgement. By understanding bias, you can make more rational, data-driven decisions.
  • Improve communication: Bias can affect how you communicate with others. When you can see other people’s biases, you can tailor your communication style to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Promote diversity and inclusion: Bias can lead to discrimination, and the exclusion of certain groups. By actively working to overcome it, you can create a more inclusive, diverse environment that fosters innovation and creativity.
  • Build empathy: Bias can prevent you from truly understanding others’ experiences. Once aware of it, you can better understand the perspectives of those around you and empathise more, leading to better relationships and collaboration.
Training your team to identify and understanding their own biases can help your business to:
  • make more informed decisions
  • communicate more effectively
  • build stronger relationships.
This all leads to improved performance at work – and in life.
Contact Aurora50 if you would like to discuss unconscious bias training as part of your organisation’s DEI strategy.

Unconscious bias at work: Four company case studies

  • Wells Fargo: In 2016, Wells Fargo faced scrutiny after it was revealed that employees had created millions of fake accounts to meet sales quotas. The scandal highlighted the issue of unconscious bias and pressure to conform to aggressive sales targets, which led to unethical behaviour. In 2020, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $3 billion in penalties. Read more on Forbes
  • Uber: In 2017, taxi firm Uber faced allegations of systemic sexism and harassment in the workplace, which led to the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick. The scandal highlighted the issue of unconscious bias and discrimination against women in the tech industry. Read more on The Guardian
  • Google: Also in 2017, internet search engine leader Google (now Alphabet) faced backlash after a memo from a male employee came to light, in which he claimed that biological differences between men and women were responsible for the gender gap in technology. The incident highlighted the issue of unconscious bias and discrimination against women in tech. Read more on NPR
  • Facebook: In 2019, the social media giant (now part of Meta) faced criticism for allowing advertisers to target advertisements based on factors such as race and ethnicity, which raised concerns about unconscious bias and discrimination in advertising. Read more on NY Times (subscriber content)

UBT problem 1: ticking the box

If you Google ‘unconscious bias training’, one autocomplete suggestion is ‘unconscious bias training doesn’t work’.
Often, UBT is conducted only as a small part of an onboarding day for new employees, a ‘box ticking’ exercise.
While companies like Google and Starbucks carry out one-off UBT sessions, the UK Civil Service announced in 2020 it was dropping UBT as a “standalone exercise”.
Cabinet secretary Julia Lopez said the Civil Service would instead “integrate principles for inclusion and diversity” into “mainstream, core training”.
This is true: unconscious bias training is not a one-time fix.
A short, one-time training session may raise awareness about unconscious bias, but it may not be enough to change behaviours or attitudes.

UBT problem 2: The stereotype threat and a resistance to change

Studies have shown that simply discussing stereotypes can actually reinforce them and make them more salient in people’s minds, creating a bias to conform to stereotypes about identity (a ‘stereotype threat’).
People can also be resistant to change, rejecting the idea that they themselves have any unconscious biases, and therefore remaining sceptical as to the effectiveness of training.
To just increase awareness of biases does not change behaviours.
Although a new connection in our brain is made, and we learn something new, old connection pathways in our brain are still strong. We will default to these until the new pathway becomes stronger.
This means that we need to strengthen the new pathway to create a new default behaviour.
This takes effort and reminders.

UBT problem 3: Broad-brush diversity concepts

Unconscious bias training often focuses on broad concepts like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’, without providing specific guidance on how to address biases in specific contexts or situations.
This can make it difficult for participants to translate learning into actionable steps in their daily lives.
Training needs to be tailored to your organisation and the situations your people experience, for them to have the ‘aha’ moments that form new connections in their brain.

Using UBT to create an inclusive workplace

Unconscious bias training is most effective when part of a broader initiative to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
It is an ongoing process, which requires ongoing commitment and support from leaders and employees alike.
When UBT is combined with other interventions, and aligned with the organisation’s cultural goals and values, it has greater impact.
Longer, more in-depth training programmes that provide opportunities for practice, reflection and feedback are more likely to result in meaningful change.
With a sustained effort, organisations can expect to see a more inclusive environment, which:
  • improves employee engagement
  • reduces turnover
  • improves collaboration
  • reduces conflict
  • improves morale
  • improves overall company performance
Unconscious bias training is just one part of a larger need to create an inclusive workplace where both men and women can thrive.
Contact Aurora50 if you would like to discuss unconscious bias training as part of your organisation’s DEI strategy. Aurora50 also uses unconscious bias training in Table Talks, a series of curated group conversations that unlock the power of candid discussion to allow everyone to feel heard.