Can Diversity Training Deal With Unconscious Bias?

Author, Academic Director
Concordia University
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Everyone knows diversity is key to a healthy, innovative and productive workplace, and even further, they know that diversity is frequently lacking in the workplace. Many companies have taken some superficial or even sincere steps to improve the diversity on their staff, but still find it difficult to acquire or retain people of color, women, LGBT people and other minority groups on staff.

The problem is that merely discussing the presence of unconscious biases is not enough to rid people of them sufficiently. A Harvard Business Review study showed that diversity training has no measurable long-term impact on improving the diversity of a staff, and employers appear to continue to select a less diverse team even after they’ve been trained. This is for a number of reasons, but the fact remains that unconscious bias is a strong factor in how people make their decisions, and workplaces need to take more serious steps than the occasional diversity training session if they hope to improve diversity in the workplace.

Creating a blind hiring process

The problem begins at the hiring process. Time and time again, employers seem to struggle to give the same weight to applicants who are not white or male. Names of colleges, names of applicants, addresses that hint at a low-income neighborhood and particular activist activities can have an influencing effect on how an employer judges a candidate subconsciously.

The best way to avoid this and begin improving diversity on staff is to remove identifying aspects from applicants’ resumes. This means their names and contact information, frequently includes the name of their schools and often also includes the names of extracurriculars or organizations they’re part of. This way, employers can review a resume based on its merits, rather than allowing unconscious biases to influence how they rate the skills of a potential candidate. Continue the hiring process using highly structured reviews with multiple interviewers, then send out interview feedback after the interviews are conducted and let people have time to review their decisions in order to prevent groupthink.

Respect the contributions of minorities

Once you have a more diverse staff, it’s important to take the correct steps to make them feel welcome and to keep them from abandoning ship. This means learning to evaluate and respond to your employees honestly, including properly identifying the contributions that minorities can make, how they strengthen the workforce and how they can grow as an employee. It also means ensuring you aren’t repeatedly passing over your minority employees in favor of giving project control, promotions or assignments to your white male employees.

Give your minority employees a chance to speak up at meetings, encourage them to share their thoughts about initiatives, be receptive to their suggestions or constructive criticism and consider that they may have powerful insights into topics you don’t. As one Toronto immigration lawyer advised me, taking the time to respect your employees’ contributions, you will make them feel more welcome and heard in the workplace and avoid the minority flight.

Learn to honestly identify bigotry

The most important thing for many employers to admit to themselves is that microaggressions or overt bigotry can take place in their business. None of your employees, yourself included, are incapable of displaying bigotry, which means you should always give accusations of bigotry the benefit of the doubt, rather than dismissing them as paranoid, hysterical or misinterpreting a small slight. Minorities often have a lifetime of personal experience with microaggressions, small subtle interactions that hint at more bigoted thoughts, which minorities often feel are too minor to make a fuss over without being shamed or accused of causing a ruckus over nothing.

Your workplace is not exempt from the subtle signs of bias and bigotry. It’s important to take the proper steps to address and alleviate such behaviors in order to help make minorities feel welcome and strengthen your team of employees.


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