The Failures of Bias Training, and What You Should be Doing Instead

December 13th, 2019

Last year, Starbucks made headlines for closing over 8,000 stores to conduct anti-bias training in response to a racial bias scandal. It was a very visible event that many argue ultimately meant little. Starbucks’s response to this discrimination, mandatory training, is a common response to social injustice in the business world.

Unfortunately, bias and sensitivity training is as ineffective as it is popular. Why is bias training so popular if it’s proven to be so ineffective? And what should businesses do to address bias and discrimination instead? The answers, while not always the easy way, can make a positive impact on employees and the business as a whole.

Why Training is an Appealing Approach

Trainings are a very standard way of addressing bias within a business. In a survey of HR management and talent management professionals, nearly half identified some form of training as the primary method of teaching employees and/or managers about bias.

In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, it shouldn’t be surprising that “more training” is the answer to many obstacles, workplace issues, and company evolutions. Continued learning has become central to the HR and talent management playbook, with many HR products incorporating content like bias trainings as standard parts of their platforms. “Bias Busting” has become an industry unto itself, with a host of consultants and learning platforms making access to bias trainings and materials more accessible than ever. Add on the popular press surrounding brands implementing high-visibility trainings, and it becomes difficult for some sort of “bias trainings” to not become the default answer!

There’s just one problem: It doesn’t seem to do much.

Why Training Comes Up Short

It appears that diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives are lagging behind what the data tells us. In a recent interview with TrustRadius, Dr. Alicia Ingersoll, who researches diversity and inclusion with an emphasis on diversity in leadership, laid out why training isn’t living up to businesses’ expectations.  “it’s easy to have a training, and hopefully it works,” she said, “but there’s been a lot of research for a couple decades now… all of the work shows that it really doesn’t help much. It might help short-term, but looking at the long term focus of the organization, the focus has to be on actually helping diverse employees within the organization.”

A big part of what makes trainings, or other efforts at directly changing people’s internal preferences or biases, is that people are complicated. Even the researchers behind the Implicit Association Test, the flagship implicit bias test out of Harvard, admit that their test struggles to gauge people’s biases.

The challenge becomes even greater when businesses try to influence biases people have. Implicit bias research has roundly concluded that workshops to address implicit bias have little to no effect on people’s behavior. “You might be more aware [of your biases], but at the end of the day, when you’re making snap judgments, it really doesn’t come into play in the thought process after a training or a few trainings,” Dr. Ingersoll argues. The mountain of evidence, as well as people’s experiences during and after these training, have led to a backlash against the practice from researchers and employees alike.

The Impact of Training’s Failures

What feels like a cycle “scandal-apology-trainings-repeat” has direct and indirect consequences for D&I efforts in companies. For some employees, current practices and the “trendiness” of D&I can be discouraging when reality fails to meet expectations. “It’s frustrating when companies claim to create safe, unbiased, and confidential spaces for employees to report any discrimination/harassment but then in practice, it actually is none of those,” one survey respondent said.

Bias trainings can even make biased behaviors and decision-making worse! Research points to mandatory trainings and negative messaging as particularly poor tactics that can exacerbate pre-existing biases in trainees. HR and talent management thought leaders acknowledge the limited effectiveness of bias trainings.

So what should they do instead?

Improving your Training

Given the risks associated with bias training, Dr. Ingersoll argues that resources dedicated to trainings “are better used in other places to help diverse employees who are already in the organization or to help with HR reporting metrics.” However, transitioning beyond a training-based approach isn’t an overnight process.

In the interim, there are some ways to make bias trainings more effective, or at least less harmful. A key policy is voluntary trainings instead of mandatory trainings.  Also avoid framing D&I as “don’t discriminate or the company pays, or you pay.” Negative messaging, or overly compliance-focused messaging, can either feel disingenuous or make employees feel defensive and resistant.

Moving beyond Training

Given the revolution of data-driven decision-making in HR, we should take this opportunity to listen to what the data says about effective D&I initiatives. Dr. Ingersoll, among many other researchers, such as Dr. Tanisha Ford, points to a culture of diversity and inclusion within your business as paramount, such as having a diverse leadership group and diverse voices in teams. But how does a business work towards that culture?

Getting other stakeholders and advocates on board is a crucial step. For bottom line-oriented colleagues, the business case for diversity is well documented. Greater diversity within an organization correlates with above industry median financial returns. A culture of diversity within your organization also makes you more attractive to an increasingly diverse talent pool, especially Millennials who tend to prioritize diversity when making employment decisions. 

Once you get the right people on board, making actual changes can be easier said than done. Recruitment policies are the most common area of focus for addressing bias and diversity among professionals we surveyed. Policies like resume depersonalization and interview panels instead of 1-on-1 interviews can positively impact diverse hiring goals and should be a focal point for inclusive organizations. Also dedicate resources towards mentoring and sponsoring diverse candidates, both externally and for promotions internal candidates.

In terms of procedures post-recruitment, reporting is the single most important area to build out to measure a business’s diversity. Have specific metrics to use when setting goals for diversity and measuring your progress towards those goals. Fortunately, HR and talent management reporting software has grown substantially more robust in recent years, making reporting far more accessible than it’s been in years past.

However, these specific policy changes have to be part of a broader strategy. Bodies in the room are necessary, but diverse voices must also be heard and respected. While it may be harder to prescribe a formula to achieve that goal, it’s crucial to cultivating a culture of diversity and inclusion throughout your business.

“It comes down to making sure that top level management is involved and really cares about having a diverse and inclusive workforce,” Dr. Ingersoll advises. “If they’re not all on board… it’s more of a marketing strategy instead of actually doing something about it.”