Is this really a good time to scrap unconscious bias training?


“Not all training is created equal…and needs to be part of a wider solution”
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Earlier this month, the government said it would scrap unconscious bias training for civil servants, claiming there was not enough evidence it was effective. Darren Hockley explains why this is not the time to ditch training that challenges workplace prejudices.

You may have seen in recent news that the government has decided not to move forward with unconscious bias training for civil servants, with ministers claiming it’s ineffective and citing a report that claims to have found no evidence of changing attitudes thanks to the training content.

For me, it’s no surprise to see that the government has also faced criticism over this decision – likely because no other plans to tackle workplace discrimination seem to have been effective. Rather, the funds previously spent on unconscious bias training are reported to simply have been “redirected”.

Why do we use unconscious bias training?

The point of unconscious bias training is to make us aware of the implicit biases we all carry. These are often automatic, socially learned stereotypes deeply embedded within our belief systems and reinforced by the things we see and hear around us – including while we are at work.

Unconscious bias training is designed to both make us aware of and also expose these thinking patterns as groundless – therefore reducing the sorts of dangerous and discriminatory behaviours prohibited by the Equality Act 2010.

Discrimination can impact every aspect of workplace culture, through hiring practices, promotions, pay structure, productivity, and – not to mention – the overall wellbeing of employees.

It’s true that ineffective training can do more harm than good in some workplaces (taking time away from the job at hand and prompting eye-rolls and groans from employees). However, reading news that unconscious bias programmes have been scrapped and are no more than a “woke agenda” is truly disheartening.

Worrying timing

Observing the government make the decision to eliminate this training comes at an interesting time and, for me, is a little worrying.

I know 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 would 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: that cases pertaining to workplace discrimination are on the rise – indeed, 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%).

In fact, we uncovered only one type of discrimination with encouraging statistics for this period: age discrimination. Cases for wage discrimination are down by over 80%, so at least there is some positive news to celebrate.

Supportive culture

As someone that’s worked in the compliance training industry for over 20-years, I’m happy to agree with Jane Farrell, chief executive of the EW Group (a diversity and inclusion consultancy), when she 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”.

Remember, 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 and leaders ought to do more to drive the point home.

Indeed, training ought to be part of a wider solution, including leaders that take the issue seriously, review their culture and turnover regularly with a critical eye, and model anti-discrimination behaviours themselves.

It’s confounding to see unconscious bias training being completely removed from the table when the evidence so clearly suggests more needs to be done.

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