What is unconscious bias training?

7th October 2013


What exactly is unconscious bias? At it’s most basic, it’s the decisions that we make every day on an unconscious basis when it comes to what we think about others. In our latest e-learning spotlight we take a look at this topical issue.

We all hold natural biases, it’s a part of human nature, and in the workplace, this means that we can sometimes behave towards a person in a certain way that is based on that bias. These are our natural people preferences and they are hard-wired into our brains on a neurological level. Social psychologists describe this as social categorisation, which means that we routinely and automatically sort people into groups.

This tends to override rational decisions and logical thinking and it’s not something that we can particularly help. Whilst the majority of us would hate to think that we’re basing our decisions about people on stereotypes, we actually do so purely on instinct.

These are also exaggerated when we’re stressed, angry or frustrated and these are the danger points when it comes to the workplace. Naturally, not many people like to admit to being biased against someone due to disability, gender and age. However, research shows us that the difference between a bias expressed explicitly and implied are on a similar scale, but higher than most people would like to admit.

The effect of bias

The effects are so subtle as to be barely noticeable and this results in what’s known as micro behaviours, which, although they are barely perceptible, remain. These might be just a lack of warmth in a greeting, or a failure to interact with people that we’re biased towards. Whilst these behaviours might not seem like much, in the long-term they can be very damaging.

In an attempt to change this behaviour, it’s necessary to look at the following:

What impact it could have on the organisation
How training can address it
How work practices, processes and policies might affect such behaviour

By implementing a training course, it’s possible for employers to break the habit of bias through education. Training can teach workers that whilst their behaviour isn’t really their fault, thus doing away with the blame game, teaches how to be aware of it so that they can make better decisions based on what they know, rather than what they feel.

It’s ideal for employees at every level and especially useful for those in recruitment and HR, as well as managers and those that often deal with employees that are on a different level than themselves. However, that’s not to say that it’s unsuitable for more junior members of staff, it really is useful for all workers to help them understand more about themselves and how it affects their interaction with colleagues, customers and management.

A course can help people to recognise the biases that they are predisposed to when they take place. However, it’s complex and this is due to the way that our minds react to events when they take place and process the information.

Education has always been key

If you have ever taken a degree-level course you will know that education has long been the key to changing negative attitudes about others. Whilst our experience is what the brain uses to process information and come to a determination, education can provoke the mind into further processing what we know about a subject/person in order to change attitudes.

Every interaction that we take, coupled with what we read and talk about has the potential to shape unconscious bias and so a mind that is self-aware enough to realise that its reactions aren’t logical can process the information yet further.

This means that training should get the student to question themselves, their reactions to certain people and why they think that this happens. It’s essential that this is a blameless process and that it promotes the we’re in it together’ idea. This is important as even with the knowledge that they can’t be held responsible for unconscious bias, many people will still be embarrassed and annoyed that they are seen to have any at all.


For managers and HR, this could mean that they should take Diversity and Equality training too, so that they have a firm grip on how to deal with any issues that may crop up and that they rid themselves of unconscious bias as soon as possible after they fill the position.

It also means that managers should be more aware that those little jokes they share with certain members of staff could make others feel excluded, as it’s these small acts that are often based upon unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias training is all about teaching self-awareness and an understanding of how experience shapes thought and personality. Once staff have been through the training, trust should be increased across the workforce as people come to realise that others react to them on a level that’s natural to them and their experience.

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