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Using Effective Unconscious Bias Training to Promote Organizational Change

In order to empower employees and create lasting growth, businesses will want to consider conducting business-wide unconscious bias trainings regarding diversity and inclusion. Studies show that properly-designed trainings can increase managerial representation across ethnicities while empowering women to seek out mentorship opportunities. By recognizing the benefits that a powerful unconscious bias training can deliver, companies can craft evidence-based seminars to promote an inclusive culture in which all employees can thrive and add value.

Benefits to Workplace Culture

Acknowledging the need for unconscious bias education can be an admittedly difficult or uncomfortable step, but one that is necessary for long-term organizational health. Some businesses might have enough hesitations about their ability to conduct such a training that they do nothing at all, missing out on a chance to better serve and understand their future customers and employees.

Unconscious bias, or implicit bias, refers to the beliefs or stereotypes about a certain group of people that an individual may unconsciously hold or act upon. This phenomenon can permeate all departments of a corporation, including marketing materials, performance reviews, retention, and recruitment. For example, do your leaders unconsciously provide mentorship only to those who look like them? Or when looking for new talent, what do the phrases “a good fit” or “not a good fit” in regard to the organization’s culture really mean? Effective diversity and inclusion trainings can move the needle from compliance, to awareness, and finally toward maturity and leadership within a company’s respective field.

Investing in proactive trainings can lower the risk of a potential lawsuit down the road. Google recently paid $11 million to settle an age-based discrimination lawsuit and will be required to institute unconscious bias training going forward. While the program messaging to employees doesn’t have to be compliance-focused, avoiding complex and costly litigation can be one of the reasons for implementing implicit bias training.

By approaching this issue intentionally, empowered employees gain the confidence to speak up and challenge workplace bias because they know their concerns will be taken seriously. It makes intuitive sense that employees who feel like they belong to a positive work culture will achieve higher productivity. Businesses have a better chance of retaining talent, and research shows that a diverse workforce is a key driver of innovation.

How to Position Unconscious Bias Training

Forcing unconscious bias trainings onto employees can lead to backlash or push peoples’ attitudes in the opposite direction from the intended outcome. Negative incentives, such as scare tactics or warnings about lawsuits, are also ineffective, and using the word “mandatory” can scare people into a compliance-oriented mindset.

While avoiding litigation can be one the reasons behind creating the program, participants don’t need to be constantly reminded about this risk.  According to a longitudinal study that looked at multiple corporations, traditional mandatory diversity trainings actually correlate to less representation for African-American/Black women and Asian men and women in managerial roles.

If a training feels too much like a remedial course or a punishment, it can spark anger, resistance, or animosity from some employees. Focusing on positive outcomes and letting people opt-in to the training gives employees the choice to become diversity and inclusion champions as a reflection of their personal values. Introductory communications can also help employees know what to expect during an unconscious bias seminar and feel more at ease during the session itself.

Individualizing the Strategies

Since no two organizations are the same, every diversity and inclusion-focused training should be tailored to an organization’s values and goals. Out-of-the-box training may not be as effective, considering how the content should be customized to the needs, language, and culture of the corporation. By destigmatizing the presence and prevalence of unconscious bias, people are more willing to acknowledge their own blind spots and identify the behaviors they want to address. For true transformation to occur, individuals need to be comfortable enough to admit any previous shortcomings. By asking everyone to write down one specific action they plan to focus on, the scale of change becomes more realistic and manageable.

A simple list of do’s and don’ts from the top-down level isn’t enough to fully address the issue. Some of the key components of a persuasive unconscious bias training seminar include informing participants about the issue, holding honest and courageous conversations, conducting engagement activities, and closing with a call-to-action. Interactive and bidirectional training serves to boost retention alongside other kinds of follow-up materials and content. Because it takes time for habits to form, tools like periodic immersion emails can reinforce seminar topics and bring the discussion into the everyday.

Organizational Accountability Toward Long-Term Change

Accountability is key to proving training ROI and to showing employees that the company validates their concerns. After the initial seminar, it’s important that companies collect data to track progress and change in organizational attitudes and behavior. Many businesses already distribute engagement surveys about employee sentiment, views on leadership, and corporate vision. Taking a deeper dive into the numbers from such a survey by demographics can provide a more accurate view into how people of various identities feel about their workplace environment.

A single hour of training with little to no follow-up may not bring about lasting outcomes, while focusing only on compliance issues may alienate key audiences. When it comes to diversity and inclusion initiatives, unconscious bias training should be just one part of a company’s larger efforts to create a respectful and equitable environment. These trainings can function as a touchpoint along an organizational journey toward nurturing a corporate culture that allows everyone to contribute their best work.

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Coauthor and contributions by Sabrina Zirkle

Tags: Diversity + Inclusion