5 major traps around unconscious bias training

by Apr 17, 2018

Creating a bias conscious culture

The traps around the concept of unconscious bias training need to be exposed.

The discussion around the effectiveness of unconscious bias training is generally polarised into two extreme camps. Those that support it and those that vociferously don’t. There are very occasionally a few voices in the grey areas of nuance.  But the number of traps around the very basic concept of unconscious bias training need to be exposed and much more thoroughly discussed.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” Peter Drucker

Creating a bias conscious culture is like any other change management initiative. It needs leadership commitment, systemic changes and shifts in individual behaviour to make it happen. In any other sphere one of the most important elements of implementing a business strategy is to align behaviours, activities and priorities with the employer’s strategic goals. This requires a “behavioural vision,” identifying  habits and behaviours that are necessary for an organization reach their objectives. These are the specific action steps that turn vision into reality to produce the desired business results. A strategy can be far-reaching, but if employees don’t live the required behaviour every day through their actions, it will not happen as it should.

unconscious bias training

#Trap 1  – asking the wrong questions

The frequently asked question is “Does unconscious bias training work?” Whatever the word “work” means in this context. They ask the question because it frequently encounters resistance and the results are difficult to measure.  I have been involved in unconscious bias training and experienced push back personally, but I think we are asking the wrong questions.

We should be asking different questions such as:

  • Who is resistant?
  • Who is doing this resisting?
  • How can we get from “defensive to discovery” mode? To quote Kristen Pressner

A new report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission “Unconscious Bias Training: An assessment of the evidence for effectiveness”  suggests that:

  • UBT is effective for awareness raising by using an Implicit Association Test. This should be  followed by a debrief or more advanced training designs, such as interactive workshops.
  • UBT can be effective for reducing implicit bias, but it is unlikely to eliminate it completely.

#Trap 2 Managing expectations

Many people talk about eliminating, eradicating or overcoming unconscious bias. That already creates a false expectation. Unconscious bias training will only highlight the many areas where bias creeps in to create an environment where constructive communication around those biases can take place in a respectful setting. It can never be removed totally. The correct language should be around creating awareness. Systemic changes will put a structure in place for ensuring that we adapt our behaviour by various degrees, because employees have to follow new protocols and are obliged to change.

#Trap 3 Pushback is bad

People push back against unconscious bias training because self-reflection can be uncomfortable and change is scary. But unlike any other change management and cultural shift, for some inexplicable reason leaders and HR professionals tip toe around this. Perhaps we should start looking at resistance not as a sign that unconscious bias training doesn’t “work”  but because it does. Th resistance is the first step. Change can be challenging and most of us prefer an easy life.

Corporate values and a mission statement lie at the heart of any organisation.  Values are driven by emotions and when people bring different emotions to the workplace, relationships can become less collaborative and we may see dissent. No-one likes that. It’s therefore important to understand where and how any of these emotions can be triggered and how business decisions and relationships are impacted. Values are nuanced, subtle and difficult to identify especially when they are unconscious. Dealing with them is not straight forward which is why we avoid it.

There is also an assumption that conflict around values is inherently bad,  but discord  makes a valuable contribution to building a diverse, innovative and strong organisation. These values define expectations around how employees relate to each other within and outside an organisation.  They centre on how people need and want to be treated to feel appreciated and gain recognition. This allows them to give their top performance and achieve better results  which in turn enhances their employee experience.  If employees feel their workplace culture is toxic, or their chances of promotion are limited because of their age, gender, race or any other bias, this will impact productivity. Diversity is a fact – it can be measured. Inclusion is a feeling.

It’s very possible to have an inclusive organisation which is homogeneous. Watch this video on gender bias in interviews to see the impact of having something pointed out:

#Trap 4: Unconscious bias training should be voluntary

Because people don’t like conflict, some pundits suggest unconscious bias training resources should be available to those who look for them on a voluntary basis.

Let’s take a typical change management scenario where an organisation wants to align workplace culture with its strategic vision and values. For example a business seeks to increase repeat sales via an improved customer service experience.  A typical path to get strategic employee buy-in might include:

  • Defining a positive customer service experience: the customer is satisfied and feels their needs and concerns are being fully met
  • Establishing metrics that would measure a positive customer experience: improved feedback, repeat purchases, increased sales
  • Identifying action points which will support that process: enhanced customer service systems, more customer service agents, extended hours of availability, better interface with other services (manufacturing, supply chain, sales) provision of a script
  • Defining positive behaviours associated with those action points: improved communication skills, rapid follow-up
  • Monitoring the success of the new behaviours: time delay, customer satisfaction survey
  • Providing necessary training: to ensure that all employees understand what they need to do and are committed to meeting  organisational objectives.

There is nothing there about any of it being voluntary. Can you imagine a caveat to say “If you would like to be efficient with a customer please don’t hesitate to check out these resources. Your call.” Or naming optional approaches “customer service nudges.”  Yet the existence of bias is known to impact objective decision-making. This impacts the bottom line of an organisation, in the same way as a poor customer service experience might damage sales.

# Trap 5 Making it an HR not a business issue

Committing to a bias conscious organisation should be a core corporate value where leaders and employees together identify the appropriate behaviours to practise in any workplace. This will create a shift from notional values and assumptions to specific expectations around behaviour. It should be part of a business issue to drive the organisation forward and not a warm, fuzzy, feel-good HR initiative. This is perceived (in itself a bias) to be part of a drive for political correctness and compliance.

The business outcomes should be at the core of the initiative with individuals held accountable and rewarded. There should be KPIs and incentives.

All of this work needs to be measured and monitored on an ongoing basis.  Commitment needs to be made to modelling and coaching the values of any culture, with a strong leadership commitment and the introduction of systemic changes to make that happen. With those key pieces in place, individual behaviour will adapt more willingly.

3Plus International can help your organisation make the changes you need with our Managing Unconscious Bias Workshops



Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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