Mandatory bias training- it’s so hot right now, but it probably shouldn’t be

In Blog, Diversity & Inclusion by Rachel Murray

You’re so excited about finally getting approval to run unconscious bias training at your company. You’ve got budget, you’ve got a timeline, senior leadership is in. Great! You’re probably thinking, let’s get everybody trained! Especially those folks that you think really need it. You want to change hearts and minds, make everyone more engaged and excited about treating their fellow co-workers in a more respectful way. Unfortunately, while your intentions are noble, they can backfire.

James Damore is the engineer who was fired from Google for writing and sharing a memo last year arguing that women aren’t equally represented in tech because they are biologically inferior when it comes to engineering. He serves as a classic example of how mandatory unconscious bias training can go wrong. When training is required, those who may be the least receptive to it (and likely are the ones you are thinking would benefit the most from it) may go into the experience with a hostile attitude and exhibit greater animosity toward underrepresented groups afterward. Studies have shown this to be the case, and have also shown that mandatory training leads to a decrease in diverse teams.

The question you may be asking yourself is, then, what’s the point? How are you going to make change if you don’t include the people who are most resistant to it? Well good news – when you make trainings optional, studies have also shown an increase in diverse teams.

I can’t help but think of A Clockwork Orange when we have conversations on this topic. If you haven’t seen this classic film, the visuals are everlasting. The lead character goes through behavior modification and is ‘reformed’. We would argue that this isn’t what unconscious bias, diversity, equity, or inclusion trainings are about. We aren’t in the business of changing hearts and minds – we are in the business of educating those who want to learn how to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace and learn about biases, while receiving the tools and skills to mitigate that bias.

That said, there are ways to make this type of training more appealing. When setting the scene, be sure it comes from senior leadership, whether the ask comes from them directly, or it’s made very clear that leadership fully endorses the effort. Provide staff with some research articles that might entice them to attend. We send out a newsletter every other Thursday filled with articles that discuss these subjects in a variety of ways. Here are some we like. If you find resistance among some, ask those who aren’t interested what’s holding them back. If they don’t buy into the concept that bias is real, you’ll likely not convince them through training. If they can’t make the time (barring any non-work related circumstances or emergencies), it might be worth reminding them that this is a top priority from senior leadership and encourage them to find a way to make it work.

When you fill a room with people who are engaged in and care about creating a more diverse and inclusive work environment, that can have a powerful effect on the entire company. If the training is done well, not only are the people who participate in the training learning, they are also passing on their understanding and skills to others through their daily interactions at work.

So don’t lose hope – we’re thrilled that you’re able to educate and empower your staff by providing a deeper understanding and critical skills, but we highly recommend making this training optional. The effort to support change will be appreciated and those who don’t wish to participate may end up being more open to change in the long run than if they’d been forced to participate at the outset.

Photo credit: Den of Geek