Freelance Editor Sift Media
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Beating the bias: why D&I training is about talking, not tick-boxes

Unconscious bias training is more than a ‘tick box’ exercise – it’s about facilitating an ongoing conversation about diversity and inclusion. In this Q&A, Ismael Lea South, director of The Salam Project, explains how organisations can provide space for employees to do that.

4th Mar 2021
Freelance Editor Sift Media
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group of diverse young business people
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When it comes to addressing the imbalances in diversity and inclusion in the workplace, learning is key. Indeed, Martin Luther King once said: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education”.

Everyone has some form of bias or prejudice but what’s key is continually finding ways to challenge it. 

Developing this capacity is something employers have become particularly interested in over the past year, with many investing in unconscious bias training to encourage this sort of critical thinking and debate, but how effective is it? As an expert in the field, Ismael Lea South, director of The Salam Project, shared some insights with us.

Ismael Lea SouthWhat is The Salam Project and how do you work to promote diversity and inclusion?

Ismael: The Salam Project is an organisation that challenges extremist views and helps companies embrace positive values. As well as facilitating unconscious bias training (in partnership with Employees Matter in London and REMA in the north west of England), we also run a number of community projects focused on giving young people the skills to get into work. This includes the Urban Digital Mentoring Project, funded by the National Lottery, which works with ex-young offenders, those permanently excluded from school and ex-gang members to build digital skills.

What progress has been made in terms of diversity and inclusion in the last year? What should business leaders be doing to make sure BAME communities get equal opportunities?

Ismael: Since the death of George Floyd last year and the subsequent prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, organisations have been more conscious in opening doors for black communities. There is still work to do, however. Business leaders and companies need to connect directly with grassroots youth organisations to make sure young people can access those opportunities. There is what I call a ‘brick wall of incompetence’ out there, of lobbyists, think tanks, policy advisors etc. who often create needless barriers to entry. If grassroots community organisations and businesses worked directly together, I think it would cut out a lot of this.

Offering internships, organising mentoring schemes, and sponsoring positive youth engagement programmes in the community are all things companies can do to make a difference. Talk to your employees from BAME backgrounds and get them involved in mentoring young people from BAME communities. These are things we can all do.

Is unconscious bias training an effective way to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

Ismael: I believe unconscious bias training helps to raise awareness and enables attendees understand the roots of the problem. Training can help to explain the background and nuances of unconscious bias that people may not be aware of, as well as how to handle difficult or uncomfortable situations and conversations. When delivering this kind of training, I always state at the start of the session that I’m not here to judge or condemn people – after all, we’re all a work in progress. It’s important to make attendees feel comfortable. Unfortunately, there are some trainers who start this kind of training by making people feel guilty, which I find counter-productive. The point is to encourage open discussion and when it’s done right, it’s very effective.

diversity and inclusion hub link

Some critics argue that unconscious bias training can sometimes backfire and create a negative response to diversity and inclusion within organisations. What’s your opinion on that and how can companies avoid these perceived pitfalls?

Ismael: Racism, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and homophobia are all present in our society. Many senior managers like to pretend they don't exist but they do. Those who haven’t experienced it might misinterpret what this training is for. Everyone has some form of bias or prejudice but what’s key is continually finding ways to challenge it. Having a training session gives people that space to explore and discuss it. This is why doing unconscious bias training once a year isn’t really effective – in my opinion it needs to happen much more frequently (at least six times a year) with activities that promote open discussion. Doing it once a year in 45 minutes to an hour to tick a box isn’t the approach people should be striving for – it’s about continual communication.

What are the optimal conditions for unconscious bias training? What should organisations do to make sure they get the best from it?

Ismael: Unconscious bias training covers off some very complex issues, such as racism, micro aggression and stereotyping, and we strongly encourage attendees to understand the context and history that sits behind these things. It takes in the religious, psychological and sociological context of biases. As such, it’s important that you build time in for attendees to reflect on it. There needs to be space for consideration and discussion. It’s not something you should rush.  

How has the pandemic affected the way you deliver training/workshops and are there any things you’ve learned that will affect the way you do it in future?

Ismael: Since lockdown last March, we’ve transferred all our training/workshops online, using a variety of online tools such as Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, Google Me and Webex. We have six projects (offering community drop in services, outreach etc) in London and Manchester that are currently on hold, but we hope they can resume once it’s safe to do so.

What’s been interesting to observe about doing training and workshops in a virtual setting is that often participants are more comfortable straight away and less guarded than they might have been in person. It often helps them to be more vocal, which is good.

Is there still a place for in-person diversity/inclusion training or do you think it’s possible to do this exclusively online in future?

Ismael: Personally, for me, nothing beats face-to-face communication but it’s great that online training is helping to spark discussion and is acting as a catalyst for social change in the workplace. Rome wasn’t built in a day though – it’s an iterative process! After Covid-19 passes, I think we will go back to doing a lot of face-to-face facilitation, but it’s good to know we have these tools when we need them. We just need to keep the messages concise, be consistent and work towards that social change we all want to see. 

Interested in this topic? Read How to ensure L&D boosts your diversity and inclusion agenda.

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