Research Findings

The pointless distraction of unconscious bias training for workplace racism

May 15, 2018

The latest management fad to combat workplace racism is unconscious bias training. It has worthy intentions, but is seriously flawed. Knowing about racial bias does not automatically result in changes in behaviour by managers and employees. It is pointless and distracts managers from addressing the radical, organisational changes that are needed.

Unconscious bias training (UBT) has become popular. It has been led by psychologists, delivered by consultants and popularised by big-name organisations keen to demonstrate their social responsibility credentials. These proponents have been influential in positioning UBT as an effective management fix suitable to a wide range of organisations in different contexts.

UBT proponents promise that the training will make a difference. The argument tends to go like this: everyone has biases in the form of racial preferences. People are not aware of these – hence the “unconscious” label – but these biases influence our actions and decisions. Knowing about the preferences through special workplace training sessions allows people to change their behaviour by moderating their actions.

Let’s leave aside the tricky problem of how to measure unconscious bias – an issue that psychologists disagree on – and assume some sort of measure is possible. What impact does knowing about your racial bias have on your behaviour?

To a large extent this is going to depend on the type of racial bias. First there are those people who have learned to suppress expressions of racial prejudice because of the change in society’s values towards greater tolerance. In the workplace they might use more socially acceptable language while still taking actions that fail to help or to support the advancement of minorities. Finding out they are biased is not news to these ‘new racists’. They already know it and they are already choosing to behave as they do, so why would they change?

A second group are ‘aversive racists’ who pride themselves with being tolerant and non-biased. In the workplace, they express egalitarian views but deep-down they hold negative beliefs about racial minorities due to discomfort or anxiety stemming from their own sociocultural influences. Their actions are more subtle forms of racism, such as favouring their own social group. Finding out they are racially biased would probably come as a shock, so it might be argued that UBT could be effective. However, it might equally have the unintended consequence that that ‘aversive racists’ become worried and withdraw from encounters with other racial groups for fear that they will say or do something unacceptable.

Finally, the ‘old fashioned’ racists may reluctantly temper expressions of race hate for the purpose of social norms in the workplace. They feign innocence when they make a racist comment with the rhetorical refrain, ‘I’m not allowed to say that, am I?’ They protest about the loss of freedom of speech and ‘political correctness gone mad’. In the private spaces of their homes or among family and friends they remain overtly racist. And in the most private of all dwellings, their heads, they can enact their beliefs in any way they choose. For such people, their bias is not unconscious; therefore, UBT can serve no useful purpose.

So UBT is pointless because only the aversive racists are likely to be amenable to it, and even then it might not change their behaviour in a pro-diversity direction. The others will not be surprised to learn of their biases so are unlikely to change how they act. Ironically, those most amenable to UBT are not found among the racist types above but are those who are displaying the lowest (or no) racial preference and who may be already committed to enacting diversity principles. Of course, they are also the people who least need UBT.

For some time, sociologists have found that while overt racist acts might have receded, racism in the workplace persists in subtle but pernicious forms. These tend to be acts where the victim cannot be certain there was any racial motivation. For example, a person’s opinion seems to be ignored more frequently, they do not seem to be praised for good work, they get challenging comments about their religion or background, the lift door is not held for them, or they have their authority questioned. Such acts become part of the workplace culture and signal to the victim that he or she does not truly fit in. If UBT cannot influence these everyday acts then what is the point of the training?

The problem is not only that UBT is pointless, but it is diverting attention and resources from other solutions. In particular, it over-emphasizes the individual. It tends to assume that the solution to racial disadvantage lies in changing the actions of individuals, rather than reforming the processes and structures of the organisation.

It seeks to provide an individual, no-blame solution to an organisation’s problems of embedded racial disadvantage. If a manager or employee is truly unaware of their bias, then presumably they cannot be blamed for individual past demeanours. Once made aware they can act differently. However, without individual willingness to do so and without radical adjustments to organisational structures and processes, nothing is going to change.

Read More

Mike Noon. “Pointless diversity training: unconscious bias, new racism and agency” in Work, Employment and Society 2017.

Image: geralt via pixabay (CC0)


  • Reply Julie Kmec May 16, 2018 at 10:02 pm

    Thanks for this great piece, Mike. I wonder if UBT works he same when used to reduce gender bias at work?

  • Reply Donald Tomaskovic-Devey June 4, 2018 at 7:26 pm

    Hi Mike, Hi Julie
    I don’t think this UBT training ever works as a solution to an organizational problem. Let’s pretend that people have an aversion to change and innovation. Now managers inform their workers that in the future they are to lose their aversion and start innovating. Managers set goals and time tables, that works.

  • Reply Jean Carroll June 11, 2018 at 12:58 pm

    I agree that without structural and institutional changes the degree of awareness that people have of their unconscious bias will not create change. However, if you are not aware, you are highly unlikely to support any institutional or structural change. What recommendations do you have related to making such changes?

    • Reply Mike Noon June 12, 2018 at 8:33 am

      I take your point Jean. Unconscious bias training might have a legitimate role to play, but it needs to be alongside initiatives that have a real impact on managers: setting equality performance targets for managers, reviewing them against those targets and linking achievement to reward.

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