Unconscious bias

In December 2020, the Cabinet Office announced that unconscious bias training is being phased out of the civil service on the grounds that there is no proof that it changes behaviour and that it may in fact cause a negative response. This comes after a group of MPs previously refused to undergo training on the grounds that it was ‘pandering to the woke agenda’ and it shows the depth of resistance within government to this type of training. But are they right?

Written by employment partners Paul Mander and Daff Richardson

Daff Richardson
Daff Richardson

The main reason for abandoning the training is that there is no evidence that it changes behaviour for the better, but that is extremely difficult to measure and writing training off for that reason isn’t in our view necessarily sound – we have been on multiple IT training sessions which we don’t think have improved our IT skills but that doesn’t necessarily mean that providing that training is worthless. Someone benefits from it and the fact that it’s difficult to measure that benefit doesn’t lead to wholesale abandonment of IT training.

Also, the mere raising of awareness seems to be actively denigrated as a reason for having the training in the first place but is that right? Having delivered this type of training we have found the responses to be almost uniformly positive: people have learned things that they did not know: they have become aware of behaviour that may unknowingly cause offence, and not in a trivial ‘snowflake’ sense. When discussing micro-aggressions, for example, many people are interested in how to make sure that colleagues are not uncomfortable and genuinely shocked by the widespread offence that is in some cases unknowingly caused.

Paul Mander
Paul Mander

So ‘awareness’ in itself surely has some value if it means that it increases our consciousness and if it enables us to improve our behaviour. The suggestion that training in itself can ‘backfire’ and create a negative response depends, it seems to us, on two things: firstly, the training itself. We have all been to bad training sessions but that doesn’t mean all training sessions are bad. Secondly, the audience: there will be people resistant to all forms of training but that is not a reason not to give it and, in fact, the people most resistant to this type of training are possibly the people who are most in need of it. The fact that there is such a level of discomfort about receiving this training from within government makes us uncomfortable, especially when it is combined with statements like ‘I’d rather gouge my eyes out with a blunt stick’ (a quote from an MP who refused training). Really?

Our main concern with the vociferous objections to this training are that it may be indicative of a denial that unconscious bias exists. There are multiple academic studies, and personal accounts, that show that it does and that it is an issue that needs to be addressed, and writing off the issue on the grounds that the training has no measurable effect is like a much lower form of undermining the black lives matter movement by saying that all lives matter: of course they do, but that misses the point and is in some cases an insidious way of undermining an important movement for change.

In our view there is much to be learned and much progress to be made and good unconscious bias training should not be written off as one admittedly small step in seeking to achieve that.

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