Why now is not the time to scrap unconscious bias training
Darren Hockley , December 18, 2020
You may have seen in that Boris Johnson’s government has made the decision to terminate unconscious bias training for civil servants, with ministers claiming it doesn’t work and citing a report which claims to have found no evidence of changing attitudes or improved workplace equality.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the government has faced criticism over the decision though. Mainly because no ulterior plans to tackle workplace discrimination seem to have been put in place.
Rather, the unconscious bias funds are said simply to have been ‘redirected’ – with no word on what the training will be replaced with, and a rather vague response from the government that “we are also determined to eliminate discrimination in the workplace”.
The point of unconscious bias training is to make us aware of the implicit biases we all carry. These are often automatic, learned stereotypes that are deeply ingrained within our belief systems and underpinned by the things we see and hear around us – including while at work.
Such programs are designed, therefore, to adjust these automatic patterns of thinking by exposing them, and, in doing so, reduce and ultimately eliminate discriminatory behaviours of the sort laid out in the Equality Act 2010.
Discrimination is bad news for workplaces and society alike. It can impact every aspect of workplace culture, through hiring practices, promotions, pay structure, productivity, and the overall wellbeing of employees.
And while I agree it’s going to take more than an annual speed-through of the organisation’s equality training to tackle the issue, reading news that unconscious bias programs have been labelled no more than a ‘woke agenda’ is truly disheartening.
The decision to scrap this training comes at an interesting time and, for me, is in danger of sending the wrong message.
I say this because in a recent study we analysed Ministry of Justice (MOJ) data going back over the last five years. The aim of the study was to uncover the top reasons workers are likely to take their employer to tribunal (as workplace training specialists, we had hoped the data would help us identify the compliance ‘blind-spots’ putting businesses at risk).
The results were interesting and, when broken down in terms of percentage increase, told a rather alarming story. Cases pertaining to workplace discrimination are on the rise – and, quite shockingly so.
The number one percentage increase in cases 2015-2020 are those relating to sexual orientation discrimination (up 165%); followed by other types of workplace discrimination including disability discrimination (up 133%), religion/belief discrimination (up 130%), race discrimination (up 94.66%), pregnancy/maternity discrimination (up 87%) and, finally, sex discrimination (up 15%).
There is only one type of discrimination with encouraging statistics, and that’s age discrimination. Cases for which are down by over 80% in the same five-year period.
The value of training
As someone that's worked in the compliance training industry for over 20-years, I'm inclined to agree with Jane Farrell, chief executive of the EW Group (a diversity and inclusion consultancy), who states that: “Great unconscious bias training provides a positive and supportive environment to think through how to ensure we recruit the best staff rather than inadvertently clone ourselves”.
After all, it’s important to remember that not all training is made equal and, while unconscious bias training is certainly a way to drive engagement with the knowledge and information necessary to action significant culture shifts, simply checking a training box and calling it a day isn't enough.
Training ought to be part of a wider solution, including leaders that take the issue seriously, review their culture and turnover with a critical eye, and model healthy behaviour themselves.
It’s disconcerting to see unconscious bias training being completely removed from the table when the evidence so clearly suggests we need to do more.
Darren Hockley is managing director of eLearning provider DeltaNet International.