At the beginning of March, a survey of 250 employers by Arctic Shore, a recruitment consultancy, revealed that a key objective for businesses in 2021 is eradicating unconscious bias in recruitment. However, the results of the same survey showed that business leaders are not completely convinced that unconscious bias training can deliver the objective of a diverse workforce. Joseph Lappin delves a little deeper into the arguments for and against.

Last year, a review by the government’s behavioural insights team concluded that unconscious bias training is not effective, saying: “There is currently no evidence that this training changes behaviour or improves workplace equality in terms of representation of women, ethnic minorities or other minority groups in position of leadership or reducing pay inequalities”.

And, in a blow to those who champion unconscious bias training, the behavioural insights team also concluded that unconscious bias training can “actually activate stereotypes, making them more likely to come to mind after the training has finished”.

In a controversial move last December, the Civil Service ditched unconscious bias training altogether on the basis that it “does not achieve its intended aims”.

In light of the behavioural insights team’s findings, other public sector employers may choose to follow suit.

So, what is unconscious bias training and is the behavioural insights team right to say that it is ineffective?

Let’s first consider bias and what it means.

The Collins English dictionary defines bias as “a tendency to prefer one person or thing to another, and to favour that person or thing”.

The purpose of unconscious bias training is to help individuals identify their unconscious biases, which can influence their judgment. It also aims to help individuals reduce the impact of their harmful implicit biases on others, for example, prejudiced ways of thinking that could unfairly influence recruitment decisions.

Unconscious bias training takes many forms. Most employers who provide unconscious bias training to staff engage independent training providers to provide in-person classroom training or online training. There are hundreds of training providers, and the quality varies.

Does unconscious bias training still have a role to play in improving inclusion and diversity at work?

Unconscious bias training is not the answer to all an employer’s ills. It would be wishful thinking to expect that the workplace will quickly become more diverse and free from inequality by inviting staff to attend unconscious bias training.

However, we think critics of unconscious bias training miss the point when they say there is a lack of evidence to suggest that it does not achieve its objective of creating greater diversity at work. For a start, a lack of evidence does not mean that unconscious bias training doesn’t work. Relatively few studies have tracked the impact of unconscious bias training on businesses over a sustained period, and there ought to be more study of this area.

Putting aside the issue of research, what unconscious bias training does do, in our view, is help individuals think about their biases. It is natural for human beings to shy away from confronting their own implicit biases, let alone think about the impact that such unhelpful biases may have on their actions at work.

If used properly, unconscious bias training can be effective in helping staff identify their ingrained views. Only when this happens can an individual take steps to reduce the impact of such prejudiced ways of thinking.

Good unconscious bias training can also provide a supportive environment in which staff can think about why they have made certain decisions. Have they taken steps in respect of recruitment or promotion that reinforce barriers to inequality?

Unconscious bias training for staff can also enable organisations to enhance their talent pipeline by improving and making fairer recruitment and decisions on career progression. It can also help managers have open and honest conversations with their staff.

If employers roll out unconscious bias training, it must be good training. Employers should make sure they engage a competent and established training provider. Training should be provided to staff regularly.

Employers should provide unconscious bias training in conjunction with deploying additional tools designed to increase diversity at work.

Stewarts uses a number of tools to increase diversity and reduce inequality. Examples include:

  1. Establishing an inclusion committee responsible for driving the firm’s diversity, equality and inclusion strategy and implementing initiatives that embed this strategy into the firm’s activities and actions;
  2. Regularly reviewing our recruitment strategies to ensure we attract and recruit talent from a diverse range of candidates with different backgrounds. We frequently update our terms of business with our preferred recruiters to make sure we are able to interview candidates from diverse backgrounds;
  3. Updating our internal HR policies to make sure they are fit for purpose; and
  4. Ignoring A-Level grades when recruiting trainees.

Not only is unconscious bias training a useful tool in the armoury for employers, regular training can assist employers in defending claims resulting from the unlawful discriminatory behaviours of employees.

In the recent case of Allay (UK) Limited v Gehlen, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) confirmed that an employer could not rely on diversity training which was one-off, historic and stale to demonstrate that it had taken all reasonable steps to prevent the employee in question committing unlawful discriminatory actions. The EAT held that it was reasonable to expect an employer, regardless of its size, to provide regular training to its staff.  The failure to provide regular training to staff by the employer in this case meant that it could not demonstrate that it had taken all reasonable steps to prevent the employee’s discriminatory behaviour from occurring.