Unconscious Bias Training Controversy

7th April 2021

Seemingly, Unconscious Bias (UB) training has become a partisan football, for some seen negatively as synonymous with political correctness and being ‘woke’.  In fact, well-designed and non-judgemental UB training simply draws attention to the uncontroversial reality that we are all programmed to be biased and that certain behaviours flow from this.  In the workplace this means implications for inclusion, effective decision-making, productivity, innovation and engagement.

At Marshalls we know that our clients are only interested in one thing, and that is to be the best where equality, diversity and inclusion are concerned.  It’s not about jumping on bandwagons and our UB training is designed to reflect this positive intent in a practical way.  We’re not persuaded by and we don’t advocate individual implicit bias testing because the jury is still out regarding validity and whether taking a test actually changes behaviour.  But we do believe in learning, which:

  1. improves awareness and understanding of how we hold biases of which we are unaware;
  2. explores how these biases can affect the ways in which we behave – both positively and negatively and
  3. offers solutions and tips to help make all employees feel valued at work and to ensure that processes are as bias-free as possible.

We know from research that bias has a variety of different roots, based in both nature and nurture.  Firstly, our brains respond automatically and uncontrollably to obvious physical differences (such as race/skin colour or facial disfigurement) without our awareness.  Secondly, our socialisation has a significant impact – in other words, what we have been taught by or learned from key influencers such as family, friends, media, and through stereotypes that are constantly reinforced, for example via Artificial Intelligence.  And thirdly, our strong need for ‘belonging’ and our relationship with ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’.

More often than not, we are unaware of these biases.  They are ‘unconscious’, irrespective of their origins, and we would be shocked to learn that our behaviours are impacted by them.  Unconscious biases push us in the direction that feels right, that we are most used to and comfortable with, so it is counterintuitive for us to resist.

How can it be argued that having the opportunity to reflect and become more self-aware is anything but helpful?  Unconscious Bias training is not about judgement, guilt or ‘policing’, and the focus should be on how we can be more inclusive and mutually supportive, irrespective of difference.  Greater understanding also means that we can design systems and processes which reduce the likelihood of bias leading to decisions that are irrational and sub-optimal, and outcomes which are unfair.  And importantly, UB training introduces the opportunity for deeper learning and behaviour change.

Last week’s report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities stated ‘Subjective factors may also affect perceptions of discrimination.  Human beings tend to discriminate, even when unintended.  We are all susceptible to differentiating between in-groups and out-groups and will be prone to favour those we perceive as belonging to.’  Yet the report also counter-intuitively called for an end to UB training.  At Marshalls we will continue to meet our clients’ needs for positive and constructive training on this and associated topics.

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