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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Tungate

Unconscious Bias Training that Works

As many organizations dedicate resources to advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace, those efforts often include looking at hiring practices and specifically implementing anti-bias training to help their staff identify biases, stereotypes, attitudes, and/or beliefs that they may hold without being aware of them. Unconscious bias or anti-bias training has received a lot of attention and mixed reviews over the last few years, with studies showing that such training can be ineffective at best, and potentially harmful at worst. Like many DEI efforts, training must go beyond the surface level to be effective. Today we’re exploring what makes for unconscious bias training that works.

  1. It must go beyond building awareness: Encouraging awareness of our biases is an important step in the debiasing process, but when it is not followed up with meaningful opportunities or tools for behavior change, awareness alone can lead to a feeling of defeat. “When participants in training sessions are given evidence that they are biased and told that these biases are unconscious, it encourages them to believe that there is nothing they can do to change their beliefs—they are unconscious after all!”* To combat this, participants must understand the link between their biases and the unintended but real outcomes those biases can cause. When coupled with hiring specifically, participants must have an opportunity to explore how bias impacts behavior and how that is linked to inequitable outcomes. Awareness is a critical step, but only the first step in the debiasing process.

  2. It must support behaviour change: Strong unconscious bias training helps participants build the muscle for behavior change. In addition to understanding how bias impacts behavior, participants need to know how to disrupt bias - this includes building common language about the types of bias that exist AND having access to tools and processes for disrupting biased thinking. Research shows that there are specific metacognition and mindfulness practices that can help participants disrupt biased thinking as it’s happening. By deploying these tactics, participants can learn to see and interrupt biases, which allows them and their team to engage in stronger decision making.

  3. It must be coupled with examining and interrogating your hiring process: In addition to disrupting biased thinking, strong unconscious bias training must support participants to interrogate their hiring process and practices to guardrail against bias all together. This means that participants must learn how to design a process that removes opportunities for bias. While there are many ways to combat bias, we’ve identified 6 specific strategies for creating a more equitable hiring process, including things like how to create and assess candidates against standardized criteria, who to involve in the interview process, and how to debrief after the interview. When combined with practices that allow participants to build awareness and learn to interrupt bias, examining and redesigning hiring processes can be a powerful way to mitigate bias.

  4. It must support accountability: Many unconscious bias trainings leave participants with a lingering question of “now what?” You’ve learned about common biases and maybe started to explore your own biases. Hopefully you now have strong tools and practices to both disrupt and prevent bias in the hiring process. But how do you put this into meaningful action? We believe that to truly be impactful, unconscious bias training must support participants to put a plan in place for how they will commit to mitigating bias. Whether they are a hiring manager, recruiter, or interview panelist, each participant has a role to play in mitigating bias in hiring. At The Equity Practice, we’ve designed an action planning process as part of our anti-bias training specifically for this reason. This process supports participants to create a vision for their candidate experience, anticipate what barriers or challenges they may come across when practicing equitable hiring, and then create a plan for overcoming these obstacles to make long and lasting change that works to increase diversity in hiring.

*King, Michelle, "Unconscious Bias Training Does Not Work, Here’s How To Fix It." Forbes, 10 Nov. 2020

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