Shoddy Bias Training Is a Corporate Risk, Not a Remedy

When it comes to programs aimed at reducing discrimination and fostering diversity in the workplace, one thing is clear: Much like gym memberships, having them is only a (small) first step. 

The latest warning on the perils of diversity box-ticking comes from Britain’s Employment Appeal Tribunal, in a recent ruling on a racial harassment case where an employer sought to shield itself by arguing that it did everything possible to prevent the behavior — a permissible defense — and offered its equal opportunities policy, anti-bullying and harassment procedures and training as evidence. However, these were found to be stale and ineffective, the company responsible for the ill treatment and obliged to pay compensation.

There’s plenty of skepticism around unconscious bias and other inclusion training, often with good reason, even among those who agree on the need to address both explicit and ingrained prejudice, and on the damage caused. It’s clear from this case that rushed, one-size-fits-all webinars, perhaps squeezed in during the employee-induction process, achieve little — however many billions of dollars companies collectively spend on them. Enough, in fact, to create an entire industry. The Equality and Human Rights Commission in the U.K., for one, found that unconscious bias training did enhance awareness, but did not eliminate the problem and could even backfire. 

That doesn’t mean that the whole thing is — in the memorable words of Bill Michael, former U.K. chairman of Big Four auditor KPMG, “complete and utter crap” — or that the wider push serves no purpose. What’s hard is pinpointing exactly how to make it work. The tribunal case, Allay (UK) Limited vs Mr S Gehlen, offers at least a useful examination of how not to, and why failure leaves companies and staff at risk.

An employee of Indian origin hired by Allay in 2016 and dismissed a year later complained of racial discrimination over regular comments made by a colleague, who argued instead that he had engaged only in limited “racial banter.” The appeal focused on the company’s argument that it took all reasonable steps to prevent this with existing procedures, policies and training; the colleague attended the latter in 2015. Both the employment tribunal judge and the appellate tribunal took a dim view. The training slides, according to the judgment handed down in February, suggested at best an insufficient effort that had faded fast. Harassment, for example, was defined with no reference to race or racial stereotypes. The company’s anti-bullying and harassment procedure referred to harassment only in the title, and again made no mention of race.

Proof of the poor quality — indeed, uselessness — was that neither policies nor training were enough to help avoid the situation in which the colleague apparently thought he was engaging in a playful exchange while asking “why the claimant was in the country,” while other employees didn’t know what to do when they heard the comments or were told about them. 

“If training involved no more than gathering employees together and saying, ‘Here is your harassment training, don’t harass people, now back to work,’ it is unlikely to be effective,” the judgement reads. It needs to make a difference — and actually last. That’s a high bar. At the very least, poor behavior should signal that existing instruction isn’t working, and needs to be refreshed.

How exactly we make that difference is a tougher question that the appeal tribunal didn’t answer. We need far more data, as my colleague Chris Hughes has pointed out, especially from outside the United States. But we do know that when it comes to unconscious bias, adequate education can at least increase cognizance of the problem, something clearly not present in the British case. Training can be a start to tackling defensiveness, helping White employees acknowledge an issue that is often, as KPMG’s Michael eloquently demonstrated, underplayed by those who prefer to believe they owe everything to merit. Regular, rather than one-time, sessions are key — not least because a single 30-minute discussion hardly communicates that the issue is a priority. 

Then, training has to be placed in the wider context of other organizational efforts to tackle bias and improve diversity and inclusion, from clear goals to messaging. Lip service is neither ethically nor legally sufficient.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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