What problems can you address with implicit bias training?

Published on June 21st, 2022

implicit bias training - two women happy

How is it possible that employees are treated unequally and feel discriminated against even after several inclusion and diversity trainings? What are the actual results of implicit bias trainings and do they even exist?  

We all have underlying thoughts and beliefs that guide our behaviors. This is what we call implicit bias – presumptions people may be unwilling to express or may not even know that they have. They can have a powerful impact in the workplace – performance, recruitment and team processes are all influenced by biases that affect our decisions. This is why implicit bias training is particularly important for businesses that aim to achieve greater diversity.

Why is implicit bias training important?

Training of employees is an important tool to overcome discrimination and develop an inclusive work culture. Learning specialists and HR managers have developed a variety of methods to train staff in implicit bias, but changing implicit knowledge or attitudes and overcoming unconscious behavior has always been a particular problem in business as well as society.  

Implicit bias training aims to establish a working culture that nurtures diversity, builds understanding and develops inclusion. Successful trainings should enable employees to gain greater awareness of their own unconscious influences and how they drive potential discriminatory behavior.  

When employees understand implicit bias you can see the results: inclusive behavior, greater self-awareness and better relationships. This second part is where it usually gets problematic: overcoming unintentional and unconscious knowledge and behaviors is definitely a complex task. On top of that, diversity and inclusion trainings have the ambitious goal of tackling problems which are the result of wider societal problems and structural inequalities. 

Having these challenges in mind, it is no surprise research shows that employees are skeptical about traditional diversity training, as it has been tokenized by companies and is not building inclusive behaviors. There has been little or no impact in increasing the diversity of the workforce. This does not mean such trainings are pointless – quite the contrary – it is just particularly important to assess the learning context and carefully plan appropriate training methods. Context, audience background, company structure, culture and length of training should all be carefully assessed and planned in order to achieve the desired effect on the workplace.   

We will go through the most common problems that can happen when planning and delivering implicit bias training:

The boomerang effect

Sometimes the training can actually backfire and condone the use of stereotypes. The assumption of most implicit bias trainings is that people will learn to overcome negative prejudices and presumptions. Sometimes, the reality is just the opposite. Learners can get frustrated and become defensive, as they do not familiarize themselves with the purpose of the training and can even feel blamed. Conducting needs assessment prior to the training, along with experiential learning methods should lower the chances of such problems. 

Contradictory evaluation results

How is it possible that even after a company-wide training program, HR reports and statistics do not mirror the excellent evaluation results? Even though employees rated the learning experience with high grades, HR complaints, biased hiring practices and underrepresentation of certain groups persist.  

Trainings may reduce implicit bias at an individual level, but such evaluation results do not guarantee long-term effects and impact on explicit behaviors. Increased awareness alone is not enough. Unconscious bias is problematic as people consciously reject stereotypes, but still persist with evaluations based on different implicit biases.  

We should not limit evaluation to immediate self-assessments, but rather a planned set of diverse evaluation methods. Progress should be measured in a planned time framework, based on indicators that are objectively measurable through organizational policies and practices.  

Lack of needs assessment 

There is no quick fix for such overarching problems as unconscious biases. Companies need to recognize this and engage their employees in the transformation processes, and not just deliver trainings without appropriate planning and needs assessment.  

In order to actually make a change, Learning and Development professionals should identify realistic goals together with the management. Pairing learning with action-oriented strategies, incentives and appropriate assessment will achieve long-term goals. 

Unclear goals and expectations

Learning is effective only when designed intentionally to achieve precise goals and specific outcomes. The main focus of implicit bias training is to raise collective and self-awareness of biases that can affect the workplace and team collaboration, and furthermore change employee behaviors and attitudes. Biases are affected by a variety of influences and aspects of identity: cultural, socio-economical, gender, ethnic and racial, etc. Trainings should be specifically tailored according to identified problems and barriers we wish to overcome in the workplace.  

We need to anticipate situations in which our bias may skew behavior and then proactively design systems that foster inclusion and diversity. Answering these questions and setting clear goals will minimize potential problems in delivering trainings.  

If you want to learn more about managing unconscious bias training, you can check out our training package – Living with Biases (We all have to). This training will help you learn how to identify key types of unconscious bias affecting the workplace, develop best practices for teams to improve inclusion, collaboration and much more. 

Interested in how introducing a cultural intelligence tool in your business could help to create a more borderless workforce? We’d love to show you our groundbreaking platform.