Unconscious bias training has become a standard feature of employee development seminars in all kinds of professions—in banking, policing, teaching, tech, and barista-ing.
The seminars are meant to help people become aware of the subconscious racism or other prejudices their minds harbor, because our brains rely on stereotypes to instantly process information. The theory goes that once a person’s previously unrecognized beliefs have been revealed, some coaching and education will help that person consciously change the way he or she behaves.
But there’s plenty to question about this process and its underlying science, as Quartz reporter Olivia Goldhill discovered in a deep dive into the topic a couple of years ago.
After examining several major studies, she found that it’s still impossible to say that implicit association tests—which rely on someone making quick associations between words and images—can verifiably quantify someone’s internal biases, or that making people aware of the invisible prejudices that guide their thinking changes the way they act. In the meantime, Goldhill writes, “The implicit bias narrative also lets us off the hook. We can’t feel as guilty or be held to account for racism that isn’t conscious.”
In a recent interview, Mastercard’s chief inclusion officer, Randall Tucker, told Quartz at Work that he also takes issue with unconscious bias training. However, his concerns are more fundamental: He doesn’t like the term itself (it drives him “up the wall”) and he finds the content of the training sessions too disconnected from daily life at the company.
Fear won’t build the right mindset
Inviting people to an unconscious bias training seminar immediately puts them on the defensive, Tucker argues. “When I hear unconscious bias, it seems like you’ve already made the assumption that I have a problem,” he says. “I hear, ‘You have a deficit and now I need to fix you.’”
That might be the case, he adds, but starting from a place of negativity turns off large portions of the workforce—especially, he says, straight white men. (Tucker, who is black, jokes that he knows this because he’s married to a white man. But he says he also knows it from “sitting in rooms where they’re like, ‘Oh, I gotta go to that unconscious bias training. What’d I do now?’”) Since examining one’s unexamined attitudes toward race or gender is already frightening to many people, he proposes we “disarm the topic and make it simple.”
“If you make it ‘I’m just honing your skills,’ they’ll grab onto it, versus, ‘I’m going to unconscious-bias train you,'” he says, switching into a horror-movie voice for the latter example.
And as Tucker notes, workshops on financial acumen, executive presence, or almost any other topic covered in corporate training are presented to employees in positive terms. “No one says ‘You need financial deficiency training,'” he points out.
Separating diversity training from leadership training is counterproductive
Tucker also sees unconscious-bias training as symptomatic of his bigger beef with the way so many companies approach inclusion and diversity. “I don’t believe in having a standalone training that you go to for diversity,” he says. “If [the training] is about leadership, it’s under the umbrella of your leadership training, so people don’t have to take off their inclusion hat and then put on a leadership hat. It’s the same hat.”
At every level of the organization, he says, there should be inclusiveness content that’s “just another tool in your toolkit,” because we know that inclusion is not only ethical, but key to a strong company.
Tucker is currently putting together what he calls inclusivity “think tanks” across global locations at Mastercard, so that he can solicit input from people in different markets who have experienced bias at work and build case studies that will resonate with other employees’ experiences. For instance, one case study may deal with a woman who is constantly being cut off in meetings and another with an employee who notices weddings, anniversaries, and other life events are celebrated by co-workers for straight employees but not those who are LGBT. “Those are the small things,” he says, “but those are the critical moments that make the culture what it is.”
Context is everything
At a time when unconscious-bias training is being heralded as a supremely powerful force that should be mandated by law for medical staff and judges, others are staying focused on what we know about conscious prejudices.
At a recent Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference, Neil Lewis, a professor of communication and social behavior at Cornell University, noted that studies showing the long-term effects of unconscious bias training have little effect. But there are alternative approaches, including structural changes that can be made to improve the odds of inclusion. In an example Lewis offers, schools might test all students for gifted education programs rather than rely on teacher referrals. The former tactic, research shows, ensures that more children from racial minorities and lower-income households end up in gifted programs. Organizations also could look for ways to change social norms, to shift the way biases show up in real life.
That kind of approach, grounded in real life at work, is exactly what Tucker prefers. In a typical unconscious-bias training session, people might dig deep into their past to pinpoint when they first became aware of racism or felt hurt by it. He says he doesn’t see the ultimate value of those conversations in the work context. “I would coach around things that are actually happening in the organization that we need to have course-correct, versus ‘I want you to give you a time when you were five years old and someone didn’t treat you right and hold hands and be nice to each other,’” he says.
“That doesn’t do it,” he adds. “That doesn’t link back to the business, to those things around what we keep getting sued for, and all of those issues that keep coming up.”