Why Your Unconscious Bias Training Isn’t Working

Will your company be the next front page story in the news? Will you be the next StarbucksGoogleMonster, or Uber? What are you doing to drive real change and an understanding of diversity and inclusion deep into middle management and throughout your organization to customer-facing employees?

In the wake of recent headlines and protests, Starbucks announced that it is closing its 8,000 US stores for an afternoon of racial bias training on May 29.

Kudos are in order for the Starbucks management team for taking swift action to address the matter. The leadership team listened, learned and are leading their organization to address the situation. This morning, Starbucks’ executive chairman Howard Schultz has been out front discussing the incident and the companies commitment to making it right. This is transparency and leadership in action.

My caution is in relying solely on training to address bias. Systemic change is difficult and takes a commitment from the top. What does this commitment look like and what are progressive companies doing? And why your unconscious bias training needs to be revamped.

CEOs for Pledging Action

Last summer, 270 CEOs signed on to The CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion™ Pledge. Kudos to everyone involved. It is the largest CEO-driven business commitment to advance diversity and inclusion within the workplace. By signing on these CEOs agree to:

  • Take action to cultivate environments where diverse experiences and perspectives are welcomed and where employees feel comfortable and encouraged to discuss diversity and inclusion
  • Serve as leaders of their companies and commit to implementing the pledge within their workplaces, or where companies have already implemented one or several of the commitments, will support other companies in doing the same

In particular, the CEOs pledged that they:

  1. We will continue to make our workplaces trusting places to have complex, and sometimes difficult, conversations about diversity and inclusion
  2. We will implement and expand unconscious bias education
  3. We will share best—and unsuccessful—practices

For those that follow my column, you’ll note that several of my best practice action themes are embedded in The CEO Pledge; visible Senior Leadership involvement in the strategy, treating the initiative as a holistic change initiative rather than a program, accountability, and sharing of best practices.

It is truly a tale of two strategies, the companies that are doing it well and the companies that are still struggling. What does real commitment look like and what are progressive companies doing? And why your unconscious bias training needs to be revamped.

Why Most Unconscious Bias Training Isn’t Working

The first objective is to make our workplaces trusting places to have complex, and sometimes difficult, conversations about diversity and inclusion. The problem is most companies are not ready to talk deeply and engage in complex conversations around gender, race or other dimensions of diversity. Most employees (and few companies) are not ready for real dialogue and they think Unconscious Bias training is the answer. This issue links closely to the second objective of implementing and expand unconscious bias training. The problem is most Unconscious Bias training is ineffective because it doesn’t go deep enough and it doesn’t address effectively the two largest groups of employees in most companies, namely men and middle managers.

The 2016 Mercer When Women Thrive Report found that only 39% of middle management and 38% of male employees are engaged in company diversity and inclusion initiatives. While we can say almost 40% is pretty good, there will still be men like the Google engineer, who become disenfranchised or who will interpret someone else’s gain as their personal loss and will see your D&I initiatives as a zero-sum proposition. If a majority of your workforce is men, it is imperative that your company programming and solutions integrate and involve them in your diversity and inclusion initiatives in a deep and meaningful manner.

Many diversity practitioners say that inclusion is the key, yet as an older white male, I rarely see myself talked about in diversity initiatives. In fact, if you look at Google’s free online Unconscious Bias training program, you’ll see no reference or mention of white men. In a very simple manner, a majority of your talent pool is asking ‘what’s in it for me?’. This is why a deeper more powerful conversation must be had. I believe that a focus on gender is the simplest place to start. Additionally, how are we going to have deep meaningful conversations on race when most companies aren’t even prepared to address the issues of gender.

Why More Bias Training is Essential

In my work to find and create male champions to advocate for advancing women, I have found it’s a combination of 75% business case and 25% personal connection. This personal connection piece is the most critical element to move people from merely understanding diversity to understanding and becoming an advocate.

For unconscious bias training to be successful it must take a deep dive into cultural differences. An online course or even a program facilitated by the instructor without proper knowledge and expertise will not work. The reason unconscious bias training doesn’t work is that it doesn’t go deep enough. Companies today must offer unconscious bias sessions with deep dives into gender, race, age, and specifically white male culture.

While I applaud Starbucks for their actions to handle this quickly, a four-hour session in one afternoon is not going to drive change. They should be having stand-alone sessions for race, gender, LGBTQ and all other key dimensions of diversity in the workplace. While a four-hour commitment is a start, I would love to see a long-term integrated approach to include all groups.

Jeffery Tobias Halter the country’s leading expert on engaging men to advance women. He is the President of YWomen, a strategic consulting company that helps organizations create Integrated Women’s Leadership Strategies, drive actionable business plans and strategies to attract, retain and advance women and address gender bias in the workplace. To access where your company is, download Jeffery’s 30-point Readiness Assessment. To begin conversations about gender, diversity and cultivating male allies, subscribe to his Gender Conversation QuickStartersnewsletter. To determine where you are on the male ally continuum, take the Male Advocacy Profile.