Olivia Parker
May 18, 2018

Is unconscious bias training really any good?

The term 'unconscious bias' is bandied about with inclusion and diversity policies across the region. But what does it look like? And what, if anything, can really be done about it?

Is unconscious bias training really any good?

Earlier this month, Starbucks announced that it would close 8,000 of its stores in the US on May 29 to launch the first stage of a “multi-phase” unconscious bias training programme, after an incident in which two black men were wrongfully arrested in a store in Philadelphia.

The news has prompted much debate, largely around the fact that Starbucks doesn’t appear to have had such training in place beforehand. But it has also thrown up many questions about unconscious bias training—in particular about whether this is the best way to address bias and its impact in the workplace.

Still a relatively new concept in Asia Pacific, unconscious bias training is a subject that increasingly crops up as part of firms’ diversity and inclusion policies. Ford Motor Company recently published a release claiming that “the majority” of its 14,300 employees in the Asia Pacific region took an online unconscious bias training course in 2017, for example. And 50% of the agencies polled by Campaign Asia-Pacific as part of our Mandate for Change call to action on gender equality said that as of November 2017, they were offering or had conducted unconscious bias training for their employees.

So what exactly goes on in this training and how effective is it at fostering the “inclusive culture” companies are so keen to promote? Our discussions show that approaches and views across the marcomms industry vary on the subject.

A term overused to the point of ubiquity?

Before you can even begin to tackle the problem, according to Bob Grove, CEO of Edelman North Asia, it’s essential to understand first what is really meant by the term “unconscious bias”.

“The reality is that it is unconscious," he said. "People's behaviour and the way they process information is based on the experiences they've had in life and the way that people have influenced them around those experiences. That's all stored away in the brain.”

Human brains can only consciously process some 40 facts at once, explains Grove, a selection skimmed from around 11 million pieces of information that are bombarding our brains at any given moment, from the colour of the walls to whether the lights are on or off. We filter based on biases that are already loaded into our brains. And while there’s nothing wrong with this system per se, says Grove, in the workplace it can be harmful if it leads to actions that hurt people’s feelings.

Potential fields of bias extend far beyond commonly discussed subjects like ethnicity, age and gender. Common prejudices also form around weight, attractiveness, or the ability to speak well and dress well, says Grove—often without people even realising it.

There's a fair amount of research to suggest that training by itself can cause more harm than good, because the training can legitimise people’s biases.

Grove says he sees such biases manifesting themselves on a daily basis, in himself as well as others. On a personal level he tries to focus on avoiding bias around gender and ethnicity in particular—and says this requires constant self-monitoring despite all he’s learned about unconscious bias. “I still think it's very hard. It has to be active thinking. As soon as it’s not active thinking you fall back into unconscious bias. You never get rid of it.”

Grove thinks that “without doubt”, Asia has its own unconscious bias particularities. “There’s a ‘macro bias’ around Caucasians talking about Asia and Asians,” he explains. “Then there are inherent biases within countries, within a region and between races within a region. Here’s a hypothetical example of something I have witnessed on numerous occasions: a Caucasian holds a telephone conference with team members from around this region and it's a mixed-race group of people, with some other Caucasians and some non-Caucasians. The non-Caucasians tend to be a bit quieter and that's for reasons which are cultural...so the Caucasians dominate the call and the leader of the call gets frustrated that the non-Caucasians don’t have a point of view, therefore they aren't very good.”

Outside ethnicity, Sujatha Maniya, chief talent officer for Publicis Media in Singapore, says that she commonly sees unconscious bias manifest itself in the workplace around age. “I think there’s this perception that older workers are hard to train, that they are not digitally savvy,” she says. “During interviews managers tend to be a little bit more cautious about hiring older workers. I personally make an effort as part of my HR process to make sure there is no discrimination in the way we recruit and I can very confidently tell you that I’ve got people in the organisation who are past retirement age. That’s how we spread the message to everybody that you should not use age, gender or race as a basis to hire anyone.”

What to do about it

Given this understanding about unconscious bias and the recognition that it exists in many complex forms, has anyone discovered how to combat it in an effective way?

In April 2017, Publicis launched an unconscious bias e-learning programme on their learning management platform, IQ Academy. Developed by the US-based microlearning company Grovo, the programme consists of two modules, Maniya explains, each made up of 10 two-minute video scenarios. Senior management in the US have attended live, face-to-face unconscious-bias training run by the consulting firm Cook Ross (also US-based), meanwhile, but this is too expensive to roll out to all staff. In Maniya’s view, however, the e-learning is actually more powerful.

“Having done it, I feel that is the most impactful way," she says. "The messages were very clear. After each section, you take a quiz and the quiz really helps you to connect back to messages." Another apparent benefit of the e-learning approach is that it gives the user a score, says Maniya: “I think our seniors have become so aware and competitive that seniors have actually started going around comparing their scores with one another. It’s healthy competition but it makes you realise 'oh my god, this is really quite powerful'.”

At Edelman, Grove has only piloted unconscious bias training at leadership level so far in APAC. Workstreams to look at tackling prejudice in practical terms are in progress, he says—but he doesn’t believe that training on its own is effective at combatting bias.

“It can help to raise awareness but there's a fair amount of research to suggest that training by itself can cause more harm than good, because the training can legitimise people’s biases. So—again I’ll give you an extreme example—if you have got a very sexist bloke and he’s in a training session which says everybody’s got these biases and that's normal, the takeaway is ‘Alright, that's fine then.’”

“E-learning is obviously cost-efficient but I really believe that this is a very personal topic and I think if you want to avoid biases being legitimised and also delivered in a way that is not seen as humourous, that is difficult to do through e-learning.”

Bob Grove

Practical, on-the-ground measures are more effective, he thinks, giving the example of Edelman’s attempts to root out prejudice between workers of different skills and professional backgrounds—a problem unique to the marcomms industry.

“Edelman was historically a PR company but we've been becoming much more of an integrated marketing company,” says Grove. “Therefore we have in every team a whole host of people from different professional backgrounds and that can lead to lots of misunderstanding in how people work together.”

Beyond different ways of working, people also have biases about what others do and how they can be of value of not, continues Grove. In two different markets—Hong Kong and Indonesia—therefore, he has experimented with grouping teams of various different specialisms together and having them interview everyone in their office to understand what they think of various other roles and skill sets. The trial created “empathy around different skill sets, which leads to a significant improvement in cultural mutuality,” says Grove.

Zarka Khan-Iltaf, APAC HR director at IPG mediabrands, believes there’s a middle ground between such practical measures and training, whether e-learning or face-to-face sessions. Leaders at IPG have been attending live training delivered by external partners since March 2017, designed to challenge their thinking, not change it, in Khan-Iltaf’s words.

In one part of the training, for example, the session trainer, a European woman who lives in Singapore, put up various different pictures of children and asked the group to select those they thought belonged to her. “There were mixed race children there but people naturally went for the white pair - actually she had adopted two black children. No one got that,” says Khan-Iltaf.

“It’s just about being conscious and mindful so when they take that back to their working environment they will check themselves before they make a gut reaction or if they’re having a gut reaction they know just to take a moment, a pause to reflect.”

IPG has also commissioned 15 minute ‘e-workout’ programmes called ‘Breaking Bias’, delivered by a psychology-based training provider called MindGym, but Khan-Iltaf says this will be just one component of the company’s policy on unconscious bias.

“In addition it will be about creating that safe inclusive culture, say, for example, not excluding people from conversations. You can’t look at it in isolation.”

“If you see the unconscious bias as a tick box, when you’re making promotions you're still just going with the gut or still recruiting all guys, all men, or people from the same university as you, then it doesn't matter because you've not altered any behaviour.”

Because unconscious bias is a difficult thing to call out in yourself, the main path to successfully tackling it in the workplace seems to be about introducing slow, incremental changes and good practices that can take root gradually. In the same way then that bias itself can be unconscious, people may react to the 'new normal' and start copying it—without even realising it.

More on this subject? 

Hear Bob Grove and other senior industry players debate unconscious bias and methods of tackling it at the Women Leading Change Conference in Singapore on May 31. womenleadingchangeawards.com/conference

 

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