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Unconscious Bias: The baby and the bath water

Blair McPherson - former Director, Author and Blogger

I met up with a former colleague  last week who keeps in touch with  their ex team members on social media and was beginning to regret it. A picture of a child’s golliwog was being shared with the words , “Let’s see how many shares we can get before this is removed”.  He was shocked and disappointed. As a manager he had championed equality and diversity at every opportunity and had ensured all his  staff attended awareness training courses. As he said this ex member of staff modified their behaviour and language at work but the training had clearly not changed their views which they now felt free to express.

This conversation seemed to reinforce recent findings that unconscious bias and diversity training were ineffective in having any lasting impact on employees. This has led many organisations to reconsider such training. However before dismissing unconscious bias training altogether it is relevant to recognise that in most organisations this training is a one off as part of new employees induction and often consists of a couple of hours or half a day. Even so the evaluation of such training sessions does suggest that employees come away with an understanding of what is meant by unconscious bias and a recognition of the power of stereotypes.

An example I have used in training is the scenario in which a father and son are involved in a serious road traffic accident. They are cut out of their vehicle and rushed into hospital where they are wheeled into adjoining operating theatres for emergency surgery. Immediately on seeing the young boy the surgeon declares,” I can not operate on this child he is my son”. Those who have not heard this story before are asked to provide an explanation for what the surgeon said.

Another successful exercise was to encourage participants to think about an occasion when they have felt excluded and then imagine what it must be like to always feel an outsider. Increased empathy has been show to have a more lasting effect on behaviour.

By exploring the power of stereotypes and acknowledging that without being aware of it they may be influencing our views and trying to put participants in someone else’s shoes the training aims to over comes participants initial reluctance to accept that they may be prejudice.

Instead of dismissing unconscious bias and diversity training as ineffective HR and management need to recognise this is just a first step. It is helpful to look at the such training in the same way you would approach a programme to get fit or lose weight. First you need to recognise you’re not fit and our over weight, it helps if you have facts about what it means to be fit and healthy, if you are to get fit and healthy you will need support and encouragement, you will need to remind yourself every so often why you are putting in all this effort and you will be aware that the results won’t be felt over night. In fact if you are to remain fit and keep the weight off  you are looking at some serious life style changes.

From the organisation’s perspective tackling unconscious bias and promoting diversity has to be built into the culture of the organisation , how we do things here, not a one off training  course. Which means senior managers must model the desired behaviour, disciplinary action must be taken for unacceptable behaviour and language and from a very practical point view greater care should be taken in recruiting employees. Many years ago when I was interviewing for care staff in homes for older people I insisted that the person specification should include two essential requirements, a basic understanding of what we mean by equality and a positive attitude to old age.

From my experience as a trainer, recruiter and manager unconscious  bias and diversity training is far more effective if you recruit staff who are receptive in the first place.

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