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Implicit bias training has become a lucrative business in recent years, but it doesn’t always deliver the expected results. (Dylan Gillis/Unsplash)

Beware of bias training: Addressing systemic racism is not an easy fix

The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others have catalyzed calls for organizations to do more to address systemic racism in our midst. In response, many organizations have issued solidarity statements and committed to meaningful action. Bookstores have seen a spike in demand for anti-racism titles, while organizational leaders scramble to find workshops, webinars and training to offer their employees on the topic of racial bias.

Among the different forms of diversity training, a popular offering addresses the concept of implicit racial bias. Implicit biases are automatic, outside of our conscious awareness, and influence us despite our best intentions.

Since the concept of implicit prejudice was first introduced in 1995, implicit bias has permeated almost all aspects of equity, diversity and inclusion training in multiple sectors. Implicit bias training entered the mainstream when Starbucks closed its stores to offer employees the training in 2018.

Over time, a lucrative industry has developed around corporate bias training. Bias has become big business because some profit-driven consultants offer training as an easy fix.

As part of a team that has studied bias training for years, I have extensively researched how it influences individuals and organizations. We have found that while bias training may be useful to start a conversation, there may be unintended consequences. For example, bringing biases into awareness for learners can trigger negative and defensive emotional reactions. Another problem is that bias training is perceived as an easy fix but addressing systemic racism is much more complicated.

When and how bias training works

A review of diversity training found that less than half of the interventions showed some improvement. Another review found only 30 studies and did not show any long-term change in outcomes. Bias training can also lead to a defensive backlash, triggering tension, identity compartmentalization and negative emotions such as shame.

Another problem is that bias is baked into the fabric of our organizations and society at large. Any educational intervention directed toward individuals without appreciation of the ubiquitous nature of bias in our society will ultimately fail. Placing the onus on individuals to address widespread organizational inequities can contribute to a sense of futility and helplessness.

In our research, we found that bias training is only effective if it is designed as one component of a larger multipronged approach.

Five hands on a table
To be effective, bias training must be adapted to particular contexts and settings. (Clay Banks/Unsplash)

First, any bias training must be designed with context and professional identity in mind. For example, our initial training was tailored to a specific work unit in a hospital. When we attempted to transfer the same training to other contexts, it was not as effective. When requests were made to apply the training to other contexts we advised that research and engagement would be necessary to understand why bias training was needed and how bias was perceived in that context.

Second, bias training is more effective when people work and train together. Training was less effective if doctors and nurses learn separately, and more effective when they work through relevant cases in a collaborative way. Training in teams also helps individuals feel comfortable opening up about their biases and accepting their vulnerabilities. Training that enhances collaboration and openness leads to social reinforcement of behavioural change.

Third, sustaining the effects of training requires tangible changes in policy and visible support of organizational leaders. Rather than focus exclusively on training others, leaders must look within their own approaches to equity and diversity. Leaders who model a more inclusive approach and integrate bias training with other initiatives to enhance inclusion and belonging within their organization will be more successful than those who rely on training alone.

Read more: Starbucks and the impact of implicit bias training

Lastly, we must humble ourselves and realize that single training sessions are unlikely to produce meaningful learning outcomes for participants. Rather than singular curricular interventions, approaches should include opportunities to refresh and repeat key messages with attention to sustainable behavioural change over time.

Racial bias is not something that we can measure and fix through training alone. There are no boxes we can check or certificate we can complete to fix systemic racism.

Advancing justice and equity requires us to roll up our sleeves and do the work. Each day we must confront our biased selves in the mirror and work hard to examine how biases manifest through our behaviours, policies and organizational practices.

But reflection alone will not fix anything. We must collectively change the biased norms within our organizations and be prepared for the inevitable discomfort that accompanies changes to the status quo.

Addressing racial bias is not just hard work, it is also messy work. We must accept that we will stumble along the way. Anti-racism is a journey, not a destination.

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