08 June 2021

Are Starbucks, Sephora and Google wrong for tackling unconscious bias?

The Power of Diversity
unconscious bias training


Thea Jaffe

Wait, what is unconscious bias?

When faced with the unknown, our brains tend to fill in the blanks with whatever we’ve been conditioned to assume.  This has been called a survival mechanism. Unconscious bias occurs when these assumptions are informed by the social inequality of the world around us, causing us to perpetuate these inequalities through our decisions and behaviour.

Moral obligation, or publicity stunt?

It’s not a crime to arrive early for a meeting. But on 12 April 2018, staff at a Philadelphia Starbucks called police on two black businessmen Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, who were subsequently arrested for trespassing as they waited for their business contact. The staff’s call to police was widely recognised as an act of implicit racism, and Starbucks responded to the incident by closing 8000+ locations on 29th May 2018 to hold company-wide unconscious bias training.

Some diversity experts applauded the bold statement of closing stores on the day of training. But others blasted it as a quick fix to save the company’s reputation – and hardly original. Companies had already been deploying forms of unconscious bias training for decades.

leading multicultural teams
Leading Multicultural Teams in Virtual Environments
Equip yourself with the tools to navigate managing multicultural teams across borders and timezones
leading multicultural teams
Leading Multicultural Teams in Virtual Environments
Equip yourself with the tools to navigate managing multicultural teams across borders and timezones

Forms of unconscious bias training were first introduced when women joined the workforce during World War II, and again in the 1970’s following the Civil Rights movement. By 2005, 65% of large companies already offered diversity training, and at great expense.

In 2014 alone, Google spent $14 million on various diversity programmes. Since then, the movement continues to pick up momentum. Earlier this year, Sephora announced plans to address racial bias by rolling out unconscious bias training to all new hires, among other DEI initiatives.

The need is clear, but the ROI on unconscious bias training is not convincing. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s meta-analysis found that while unconscious bias training is effectively raising awareness of bias, it does not reduce or eliminate it, and the visible impact on behaviour is very limited.

Following this and other studies, the UK Government Equalities Office classified unconscious bias training and Diversity training as “actions with mixed results” which in some cases, may even reinforce negative stereotypes and “exacerbate biases.” Ironically, studies show that people are more likely to internalise and perpetuate stereotypes, after being told they’re common.

Unconscious bias training attendance can create the belief that everyone at an organisation has learned how to be inclusive. But this is counterproductive, because studies show that people are more likely to discriminate unfairly when they believe they don’t have bias.

The need is clear, but the ROI on unconscious bias training is not convincing

Some researchers have also highlighted that unconscious bias training can trigger feelings of resentment in the majority population (for example, white men), while leaving women and other minority groups with a false impression that members of the dominant group are disproportionately biased.

It’s also been found that unconscious bias training is poorly received when made compulsory or focuses on equality law. This is thought to be because people instinctively resent being told how to think and feel.

All of these unintended consequences of unconscious bias training undermine trust among colleagues, trust between employees and their organisation, that the unconscious bias training was intended to cultivate in the first place.

leading multicultural teams
Leading Multicultural Teams in Virtual Environments
Equip yourself with the tools to navigate managing multicultural teams across borders and timezones
leading multicultural teams
Leading Multicultural Teams in Virtual Environments
Equip yourself with the tools to navigate managing multicultural teams across borders and timezones

Is unconscious bias training wrong to do? Or are we just doing it wrong?

Without evidence of ROI, unconscious bias training looks like a “tick-box” exercise. The low time commitment (sometimes as small as watching a 20-minute video) for participants and theoretical content is viewed as cosmetic, and does not force systemic change from the organisation. Further, the content of unconscious bias training raises awareness of bias without giving participants a concrete skill set for reversing it. Based on the current research, we would argue that the best approaches to diversity attack the more tangible barriers to inclusion – specifically,  cultural and linguistic differences among colleagues.

In 2014 alone, Google spent $14 million on various diversity programmes

In the sections below, I outline what a successful approach to DEI should involve. First, we need to build cultural competency. Then it’s time to tackle linguistic barriers. Next, programmes should apply high-impact teaching methodologies and intergroup contact. Finally, organisational processes need to be structured to promote inclusion.

Cultural barriers to inclusion

In a recent interview with Dr. Jane Goodall, Prince Harry the Duke of Sussex described unconscious bias as a vicious cycle. Prejudice, he said, is “learned from the older generation, or from advertising, from your environment… Unless we acknowledge we are part of this cycle, then we’re always going to be fighting against it.” Research shows that culture directly influences our attitudes toward characteristics such as race, gender, sexual orientation, age and disability. Our culture informs our bias, which in turn informs our behaviours, which duly reinforce the inequalities of our culture – perpetuating the bias.

Building cultural competency gives us the curiosity and skills needed to disrupt this cycle. D&I expert Billy Vaughn, PhD CDP advocates a cultural competency approach to diversity education that consists of four tools

  1. Awareness
  2. Skills
  3. Knowledge
  4. Attitude.

A common criticism of unconscious bias training is that it imparts “awareness”, but seems to stop there. By contrast, Cultural competency does three things:

  • Changes behavior. “What happens too often in this work,” says Vaughn, “is that we get stuck at the awareness level.” The result is that employees develop a desire to be inclusive without knowing how to do it. This frustrated desire converts into fear, resentment, guilt, awkwardness, or even nothing, depending on the person. On the other hand, cultural competence training teaches the attitude, knowledge and skills to practice inclusive behaviour in diverse environments. For Vaughn, teaching about unconscious bias without imparting the rest of the cultural competency toolkit needed to disrupt it is like “putting the person in the driver’s seat of a speeding train…you’re going to have a collision.” Cultural competence helps us avoid collisions by teaching us to value diversity in theory, and practice. It’s not just about “seeing past” differences, but “involves being appreciative, affirming, and inclusive of all cultural backgrounds.”
  • Builds trust. Research suggests that cultural competence training can be more effective than unconscious bias training for building trust on multinational teams. The healthcare industry has already known for years that cultural competence training can save lives. Such training helps practitioners “increase understanding of what the patient is experiencing” and gives them “skills to bridge cultural differences and foster increased trust.” For example, this can be the difference between life or death for an Asian patient who will not consent to surgery without a male family member present.
  • Improves performance. The Harvard Business Review recently examined a study where a group of Dutch, German and Chinese colleagues needed to obtain information from each other to complete a task. It was found that while the German and Dutch colleagues received the same amount of information from both other groups, Chinese colleagues received less information from Dutch colleagues. This put the Chinese colleagues at a disadvantage when completing the task, which was completely unrelated to competence. The study concludes that employees are more likely to trust colleagues with similar cultural backgrounds and that the amount of bias experienced by employees is directly related to the extent of cultural differences between themselves and the majority nationality group.”

The majority of unconscious bias programmes out there highlight the existence of bias without cultivating cultural competence. For example, LinkedIn Learning’s publicly available unconscious bias training programme with Stacey Gordon highlights the types of unconscious bias and the impact of these on organisations, without mentioning culture even once.

Unconscious bias training tends to focus on social justice and the business case for diversity. Cultural competence training does that and more. It puts bias into context and builds curiosity about our own and other people’s values, expectations, and behaviours. It creates a habit of valuing differences that is essential for an inclusive workplace.

Linguistic barriers to inclusion

In his BBC article “The huge benefits of working in your second language” Jose Luis Peñarredonda discusses a study that found employees to be more analytical, objective, and emotionally detached when working in a second language. While these qualities do give us the upper hand in negotiations, Peñarredonda acknowledges that when working in a second language, you “need more time to think.” Of his own experience working full time in English, his second language, he said, “It felt like trying to eat soup with a fork.”

Employees tend to be more analytical, objective, and emotionally detached when working in a second language

What does it mean for inclusion, when some people on a team are eating soup with a fork? A 2013 study of three German automotive companies found that linguistic barriers significantly impact trust formation on multinational teams. It was found that multinational team members automatically attributed low task competence to colleagues with relatively lower proficiency in the shared language, making them reluctant to trust those team members.

Further, unfamiliar language features and miscommunications were mistakenly attributed to colleagues’ personalities rather than the multilingual environment. On the flip side, linguistically demanding situations were found to trigger anxiety in colleagues who assessed their own proficiency in the business language as too low, a stress factor foreign to employees working in their first language. Another study of linguistic diversity in two Swiss companies found that “a good or even excellent command of English” was not sufficient for multinational teams to operate and negotiate effectively, as people could not bring their full power to roles when subtler meaning, sense of humor and attitude were lost in translation.”

For any organisation concerned about equality, these findings highlight the importance of having easily accessible language support available both for employees working in a second language, and potentially, those working closely with them. For the second group, learning the first language of colleagues or even any other language gives them an insight into the additional workload foreign speakers carry, and what may be lost in translation. To reap the benefits of linguistic diversity described by Penarredonda while also maintaining an inclusive environment, scalable language training solutions should be a part of the diversity programme. A bonus? Language learning increases neuroplasticity, key for longevity, health and learning new skills – including cultural competence.

leading multicultural teams
Leading Multicultural Teams in Virtual Environments
Equip yourself with the tools to navigate managing multicultural teams across borders and timezones
leading multicultural teams
Leading Multicultural Teams in Virtual Environments
Equip yourself with the tools to navigate managing multicultural teams across borders and timezones

High impact training formats

Though unconscious bias training has been around for decades, more research needs to be done on the most effective ways to reduce prejudice. That said, the trend seems to be the shorter the programme, the less the impact.  As Dobbin and Kalev put it, “short term educational interventions in general do not change people.” Extensive programmes have stronger results. In a study by Patricia Devine and colleagues, for example, a 12-week intervention was found to successfully reduce measured bias in those who actively participated.

Some researchers have also highlighted that unconscious bias training can trigger feelings of resentment in the majority population

For companies looking for efficiency, high impact methodologies such as the Flipped Classroom could be a good way to ensure training makes a lasting impression. In the flipped classroom methodology, participants engage with content in short microlearning self-study activities before and after the trainer-led session. Familiarity with the topic allows them to engage more actively in the live session, while the follow-up activities ensure learning takeaways are consolidated and applied. Large scale programmes should be delivered via a digital learning platform that provides visibility of engagement, so ROI can be tracked.

Intergroup contact promotes inclusion

Another factor contributing to the success of unconscious bias training is intergroup contact. Contact theory is the idea that prejudice will reduce when groups initially biased against each other spend more time together and get to know each other. Studies show that contact among diverse groups creates familiarity, which reduces anxiety and increases empathy, two developments that are vital for building trust on diverse teams.

We can see contact theory play out in the aforementioned studies on information sharing and trust formation.  Burcu Subaşi, who led the study on information sharing with Dr. Wendy van Ginkel and Prof. Daan van Knippenberg, highlights the responsibility of managers to help employees get to know each other, for example by encouraging contributions from everyone at team meetings. In the study of language barriers’ impact on trust formation, Helene Tenzer, Markus Pudelko and Anne-Wil Harding suggest that managers can help counteract the first impressions and misunderstandings based on language. They can do this by regularly highlighting the work-related achievements of each team member, consistently summarising and paraphrasing discussion outcomes in meetings, and strive for an “open and positive” emotional climate where diversity is valued.

Contact theory suggests that diversity training itself should be delivered to diverse groups. But for the effects to be lasting, management should also take steps to encourage diverse teams to work together, giving diverse colleagues a chance to practice cultural competence, overcome linguistic barriers, and establish trust.

Further reading

Building inclusive organisations

For any DEI training to be successful in the long term, it needs to be built into the organisation itself. Here are some of the top recommendations from the UK Government Equalities office:

  • Diversify candidate shortlists when recruiting and promoting
  • Use structured processes and checklists to ensure recruitment and performance reviews remain objective
  • Appoint and train diversity managers, advocates and task forces to participate in HR processes like recruitment, promotion and disciplinary procedures
  • Increase transparency in criteria for pay rises and promotions
  • Share salary ranges, to encourage negotiation
  • Uphold flexible working policies and encourage the take-up of shared parental leave
  • Offer networking and mentoring, to support diverse employees to get to know each other
  • Train team leaders in Managing International teams

At the starting point, organisations are only as inclusive as the culture from which they arose. But organisations also have the power to influence this culture, making corporate DEI a social responsibility. Through training interventions and organisational development, we do have the power to tackle barriers to inclusion and disrupt the vicious cycle of unconscious bias. What stands out is that DEI is a long term commitment with all hands on deck. There are many forms an inclusive organisation can take, but one thing is for sure: it can’t be built in a day.

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