The corporate world is hearing a lot about unconscious biases and the negative impacts they can have in the workplace. Research continues to show that all of us hold these biases toward others, but it’s important to understand and work against because they can have a very detrimental effect on the success of businesses.

Exploring unconscious bias and how to train employees

Exploring Unconscious Biases

Unconscious biases are proving particularly hard for human resources and training managers to address because they’re subconscious. All of us are exposed to a barrage of content that can make us think or feel a particular way about a group of people, without even realizing we hold these feelings or that they’re influencing our behavior.

Just because a person isn’t overtly sexist or racist doesn’t mean they don’t hold certain prejudices, based on research. However, because they are below the level of consciousness, it can be difficult for employers and employees to even recognize them.

Facebook and the Battle of the Biases

Facebook is perhaps the heart of Silicon Valley, which is a place we’re increasingly seeing as being made up of a homogeneous employee landscape. Despite many of the top companies speaking out against workplace biases and discrimination, many of the top technology companies have very little diversity in the workforce.

Facebook prides itself on being a leader in a variety of ways, and one of the places they’ve been recently putting their focus is on training against employee biases in the workplace. This summer Facebook announced it would be sharing its bias training with the public, to inspire other employers to provide similar training. Facebook is one of many tech companies that hopes it will be able to change workplace demographics by pointing out employee biases and then providing them with the tools to address these issues.

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, has spoken a great deal about the subject, saying unconscious bias training is one of the most important initiatives companies can utilize to combat these issues and bring about a greater sense of diversity.

Sandberg said the following when Facebook announced they’d be making their diversity training public:

“Studies show that job applicants with ‘black-sounding names’ are less likely to get callbacks than those with ‘white sounding names’—and applicants called Jennifer are likely to be offered a lower salary than applicants called John. And organizations which consider themselves highly meritocratic can actually show more bias.”

Despite the heavy rhetoric from Facebook, its workforce is made up of just 4% Hispanic employees, and 2% African American. 68% of Facebook’s global employees are male.

This begs the question of whether or not you can train employees and an organization out of holding unconscious biases?

Unconscious Bias Training As the Cure-All?

Recently Fortune covered this topic, addressing the idea that unconscious bias training is a silver bullet to address and promote workplace diversity.

Companies including not only Facebook but also Pinterest, Google, and Airbnb, are all implementing diversity and unconscious bias training, to help employees become more aware of their subconscious prejudices, but is it working?

A diversity panel spoke on the issue at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit. Varsha Rao, who’s the head of operations at Airbnb spoke out during the discussion saying, “We have found that unconscious bias training has been eye-opening to start the dialogue. I don’t think the training alone can have the impact that we want. The practices that we have in place are not a silver bullet, but they’re a step in the right direction.”

Roche Diagnostics is a company that’s made notable strides toward removing biases by holding sessions with middle and senior managers that address these issues within the cultural framework of the company. As well as just addressing the issue, Roche also started mentor programs that paired employees to encourage the movement of women from lower level positions into middle management.

Training as a Safeguard Against Biases

While what’s mentioned above may be true, training is not the cure-all for biases, it can go a long way in helping employees recognize these issues. It isn’t just about promoting diversity—businesses that train workers against unconscious biases do tend to have a better culture and a stronger level of performance than their counterparts sidestepping the issue.

So how do you begin this undertaking?

Manage Expectations

When you’re designing employee training aimed at tackling employee biases, it’s crucial that you don’t create overwhelming expectations. This type of training is unique from standard diversity and inclusion topics because it’s something your employees may not even realize is happening. Reducing or eliminating unconscious bias will take consistent, reliable training to help employees tackle the issue and strengthen the workplace. It is prudent to expect results to be slow in the beginning but with consistency, eventual improvements will happen.

Don’t Place Blame

You always want your employees to feel engaged when it comes to training of any kind, and they’re going to be automatically turned off from training if they feel like they’re being blamed or attacked. Be cognizant and careful with how you approach this type of training, to draw employees in and make it feel like something beneficial for everyone.

Provide Visuals

All kinds of diversity training can really benefit from the use of e-Learning that incorporates visuals and multimedia tools. It helps employees to see examples of what’s meant by unconscious biases in the workplace through the use of videos and animations.  Whenever possible use real-life experiences to create these multimedia elements based on what you’ve actually observed within your organization. Use these visuals to provide concrete and specific examples of where biases may exist—for example when employees interact with customers—and then provide actionable ways to address these potential issues.

Spark Conversation

Effective diversity and bias training is reliant not just on presenting facts and situations, but also encouraging critical thinking. To foster a sense of critical thinking and evaluation, invite employees to collaborate within the virtual learning environment through webinars and online discussions and chats. As well as the options for collaboration, simulation can also be a powerful diversity and bias training tool.

Maintain Continual Training

Just as all employee learning and development should be ongoing, continual and consistent, so should bias training. Employees hold these biases without even realizing it, and these prejudices can’t be undone in one training session. Commit to a continuous training experience, which is often best delivered through byte-sized modules.

What do you think about unconscious bias training in the workplace? is it something worth investing in?

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