Unconscious bias training: Make your strategy and workshops a success

Author: Gareth Buchanan

Following on from his article discussing what organisations need to know before they roll out unconscious bias training, Gareth Buchanan explores how organisations can make their bias mitigation efforts work.

Making your unconscious bias strategy a success

1. Embed inclusive thinking into your ways of working

By building inclusive design into all your organisational processes, you can aim to mitigate against unconscious bias arising in the first place. Consider building checkpoints into all of your major design processes, to ensure that the needs of diverse groups of people are considered at key stages in your design and approvals process.

Additional resources

Training: Unconscious bias

Podcast: How do you create a more racially diverse and inclusive workplace?

Once you understand the root causes that lead to inconsistent and poor experiences, research how to resolve them. Consider whether removing information (as in the case of anonymised CV reviews) could help to focus decision-making on the information that matters.

By reviewing all your people processes and communications step-by-step, from the perspective of different characteristics, you will reduce the opportunities for bias both in your processes and in how your people interact with each other and your customers.

2. Make UBT part of a wider programme, and motivate, innovate and reward effort and success

Our minds are stubborn. Our organisations? Doubly so.

To achieve the benefits that UBT offers, your entire organisation's approach to inclusion and equality has to go through everything you do. It has to be represented in your values, purpose, vision, culture, performance management, reward, and organisational processes.

Consider how you can motivate people to apply their post-UBT knowledge in their jobs. By reviewing the processes that they work with from different perspectives, they might find new and better ways of doing things - but it is unlikely to happen if they are not empowered to act.

3. Use data to identify bias and to remove unconscious decision-making

Gather all available diversity data for your employee populations. Split these by protected characteristic, hierarchy, management level, division, department, team and location.

Where possible, gather data in relation to all employees (again split by the populations outlined above) and each of your major people processes, eg leavers and joiners, promotions, pay and bonus awards, benefit take-up, employee opinion surveys, flexible working requests, grievance and disciplinary statistics, equal pay, pay gaps, etc.

By gathering data in relation to each stage of your employee life cycle, broken down by protected characteristic, you can analyse how employee populations with protected characteristics participate (or not) and progress through each stage of all your processes. With further analysis, you can review this against different parts of your organisation, or different locations, by management populations, and so on.

Where anomalies occur (in relation to how certain groups perform in relation to other groups), this might give cause to investigate (in the absence of good reason). For example, in your recruitment process, you might see that people with a visible characteristic tend to perform as well as people without, until the face-to-face stage. This could indicate that bias plays a role in your appointments when managers can physically see candidates.

Often this is where we find that our processes have ultimately come down to some kind of conscious or unconscious human judgment, even where we thought that we had controls in place to avoid this. For example, where recruiting managers do not consistently apply interview questions, or when line managers use personal judgment when distributing work or praise.

Because some element has been left to subjective judgment, the process has potentially become flawed, which is leading to skewed (ie biased) results.

Once you understand where you have challenges, you can start to investigate further. The answers are not always easy to find, nor are the trends always easy to prove, or palatable for some organisations to accept.

4. Consider where you can make better decisions with less information

Making decisions that are solely, or even mostly, based on factual, objective information can be hard, and requires more planning and control than is immediately obvious.

As an example, anonymising CVs can prove to be administratively challenging for organisations operating with anything but the most modern recruitment systems, particularly when dealing with the number of applications that many vacancies attract.

If you are serious about removing opportunities for bias to arise, look at your entire employee and customer lifecycle, and be forensic about every step of that process. Talk to and listen to the people and communities who experience your processes, products, employment, and services. Gather data to help you understand at which specific point in your process different communities stop progressing, and find out why. Challenge yourselves over what information is really needed to make decisions and to support people.

Consider whether the information on which you are currently basing decisions is subjective or objective, and find ways to make changes where appropriate.

5. Make bias, and meeting diverse people's needs, part of your organisational language

Explaining why it is important to meet people's needs, and to eradicate bias and discrimination, are essential to gaining buy-in from employees, and in setting standards of acceptable behaviour.

Aim to embed a culture where people talk about the impact of bias on a regular basis, and are constantly looking to improve processes, communications and their own decision-making to the benefit of their colleagues and customers.

Consider the language used in all of your communications. Could it be open to interpretation based on perspective? Similar to the approach you take to reviewing data, consider language from multiple perspectives and find universally acceptable alternatives.

Will the words, images, colours or navigation make your process easier to use, or more attractive to certain groups, compared to others? Could that make those groups more biased against your organisation?

6. Remember that e-learning is not a substitute for classroom learning

For many organisations, delivering workshop-based UBT for all employees is simply not cost effective, nor feasible in a post-COVID world, factors that are unlikely to change in the near future. Regardless, the spread of UBT e-learning had been steadily growing for a number of years.

Depending on role and responsibility, different employees have more or less opportunity to bring bias into their jobs than others. As a result, many employers have taken a multi-channel approach to UBT, with some delivering workshops for leaders and line managers and e-learning modules for other populations.

The content covered in e-learning UBT is not necessarily representative of the real efforts that many organisations are making to train leaders and employees and to de-bias processes, products, services, and outreach materials. However, e-learning is likely to account for the majority of employees who undertake UBT.

If most people are experiencing UBT through e-learning, rather than in a classroom environment, this could be a contributing factor as to why many increasingly see UBT as a tick box exercise designed to appease the "woke brigade", or why many consider employer's efforts to eradicate bias to be light touch. Never intended as a direct replacement for classroom based UBT, e-learning can be useful as an awareness raising tool, or for compliance. Alone, it will, however, never drive the kind of culture change that most UBT programmes are aiming for.

Understandably, budgets, availability of quality trainers, and many other factors will mean that e-learning will continue to be an attractive solution to businesses considering UBT and other diversity and inclusion initiatives. A focus on quality of training, broader efforts and communication of those efforts, will remain key for employers who want to demonstrate their full commitment to inclusion, while using all available solutions.

Tips for running successful UBT workshops

Plan ahead

  • Deliver training to groups of people who work closely together (eg teams, or people who perform the same or similar roles) to encourage sharing and problem solving.
  • Ensure that participants understand what UBT is before attending, by providing factual, unbiased reading materials.
  • Create safe spaces and time for people to reflect both before, during and after training.
  • Encourage people to explore and discuss their thoughts and to come to terms with what they find, and to think about how they can apply their new knowledge to the benefit of their colleagues and customers.
  • Encourage participants to undertake a test (eg an implicit association test (IAT)) prior to attending (or ideally to take multiple IAT tests).

Communicate your intentions and strategy

  • Share your UBT and inclusion strategies and talk to your people about them.
  • Tell people if you are using different UBT solutions for different populations, and de-biasing your processes, communications, systems, etc.
  • Explain why you have taken the approaches you have, and what you hope to gain as a result.

Take a holistic approach

  • Educate participants about unconscious bias theory and the impact of unconscious bias.
  • Explore the impact of unconscious bias in the major aspects of life (work, education, relationships, social, etc) from different perspectives, including the most commonly under-represented communities.
  • Explore different types of bias (eg confirmation bias, affinity bias, etc), and how they can impact individual and collective decision-making.
  • Explore how these different types of bias can come into play, and be influenced by circumstances such as peer pressure, hierarchy, workplace culture, incomplete information, assumptions, stereotypes, time pressure, etc.
  • Explore language, explaining how it can be chosen, interpreted, or empathised with differently based on perspective.
  • Use exercises (eg "Strangers on a Train" and the "Shape, Size and Colour Game") to bring to life practical examples of how bias influences our decision-making in the moment.
  • Discuss bias-reduction strategies, and alternative ways that individuals can counter-balance bias:
    • Stereotype replacement - ask participants to try to identify and recognise stereotypes that they hold, reflect on why and how those stereotypes have developed, consider how they could be avoided or mitigated in the future, and plan unbiased responses to replace them.
    • Individualism - introduce participants to people from different, diverse backgrounds and get to know them on a personal level; help participants to see people as individuals, rather than being fundamentally representative of the groups to which they belong.
    • Perspective taking - encourage participants to imagine themselves as a member of a stereotyped or under-represented group.
  • Spend time discussing the cultural and organisational challenges in de-biasing processes. Share examples of de-biasing in action - from complicated people processes to simple recruitment documents or job descriptions.
  • Explain how to review a document for biased language, or how HR have helped make recruitment processes fairer by removing personal information from job applications, etc.
  • Look at real examples involving participants' actual processes and help them understand how bias can arise, and be removed.
  • Help attendees appreciate the importance of implementing structured, consistent interviews and assessment tools in their day-to-day people processes to minimise the opportunity for unconscious bias to arise.
  • Encourage attendees to take an IAT test regularly and to consider their biases and decision-making frequently as part of their personal development.
  • Motivate individuals and teams to develop a bias baseline, and to track their collective and individual progress (with appropriate privacy controls in place).
  • Discuss sources of bias, and the impact of workplace culture, friends and family, and digital media in cultivating echo chambers, peer pressure, group-think, etc.
  • Encourage people to seek out alternative sources of information when researching, and to identify and consider views and opinions that challenge the status quo when making decisions that impact others.

Follow-up and follow-through

  • Follow UBT with a debrief session, to embed awareness and increase education of unconscious bias and to measure any changes in bias.
  • Build inclusion- and equality-related objectives into performance plans so that your people know that meeting others' needs, regardless of difference is important.
  • Help people to understand that removing bias, and meeting everyone's needs equally is how you measure success.
  • From your organisational design principles to your customer and employee experience, consider the needs of under-represented groups in the various stages of designing and approving new products, processes and services, and make their needs a priority.
  • Review all your people processes, and their associated communications, products, etc and review them step-by-step, from the perspective of each protected characteristic.