Unconscious bias training is crucial to understanding our own implicit biases and how they impact the workplace, as well as building more diverse and inclusive organizations.

However, studies have shown that typical unconscious bias training programs don't change behaviors — and can actually increase workplace discrimination.

So what makes the difference between training that simply checks a box and that which creates meaningful change? Indeed’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB+) education manager, Taytiana Welch-McClure, shares six elements of unconscious bias training that will deliver tangible, lasting results.  

Recognize the Problem

The first step in countering unconscious bias is understanding why it exists — and how it permeates everything. Unconscious bias is defined as “stereotypes or assumptions we make outside of our awareness.” Essentially, our brains create shortcuts based on information specific to our lived experiences that lead us to make snap judgments about others. The resulting bias can take the form of unfair assumptions, preferential treatment, microaggressions or exclusionary behavior that can even cause workplace harassment or discrimination. 

Indeed’s unconscious bias training program is an e-learning module that reveals the spectrum of biases that may be encountered at work.

“If you're not familiar with the way bias can hinder folks in the workplace, it’s helpful to see examples of how it shows up in places you would never realize,” says Welch-McClure. “It builds a foundation for people who may not have been able to recognize unconscious bias in the past.”

Shining a light on bias can have a wide-ranging impact. For example, when individuals can recognize and report unconscious bias in the promotion process, it helps combat this on a systemic level.

Encourage Deep Reflection

Simply acknowledging unconscious bias exists won’t change behaviors. The next step is reflecting on how it influences our assumptions, interactions and decisions in the workplace. 

For example, Chela White-Ramsey, Ph.D., senior executive advisor on Indeed’s talent intelligence team, says a common type of unconscious bias called affinity bias, or “like me syndrome,” shows up during job interviews through innocuous questions like “Where did you grow up?” or “What’s your favorite book?” While these questions won’t help to determine if candidates have what it takes to succeed, she says, they will help you “hire a lot of people who are just like you.”

However, according to Welch-McClure, most unconscious bias training doesn’t go far enough in this area. She advocates a much deeper level of reflection about identity.

“Our identities and our perceptions of other people's identities are what we're reacting to when our biases are on show,” she says. By understanding the components of who we are, our privilege and how identity influences our biases, we’ll be more likely to catch ourselves making assumptions or judgments and stop them in their tracks. 

Offer Actionable Tools

Once they understand unconscious bias and the role of identity, participants need tools for taking action to combat it. Welch-McClure suggests this simple framework for challenging our discomfort in real-world situations:

  1. Reflect: What does your social circle look like? Who is most familiar to you? Do you work with people you feel uncomfortable around or who are not “like you”?
  1. Recognize: What is behind these feelings of discomfort? Is it really the other people, or could it be your lack of familiarity with those outside your social circle? 
  1. Challenge: When you feel discomfort in the moment, don’t react right away. Challenge the feeling by giving yourself time to assess the root cause and any possible biases.

“By recognizing what's familiar to you, and then requiring yourself to stop and not respond immediately, you start to take action,” says Welch-McClure. “It's as simple as saying, ‘I'm committing myself to taking a deep breath before I respond to something. If I don't like something, I'm going to ask myself why.’” 

The next time you feel as though you’re not “clicking” with a colleague or you feel at odds, stop and examine the disconnect — is it for a legitimate reason, or is it unconscious bias at play?

Connect the Dots

Don’t create your unconscious bias training program in a silo — thread the concept throughout all of your DEIB+ training programs so people understand how these issues are connected. For example, a psychological safety training program might illustrate how unconscious bias could cause someone to feel uncomfortable and unsafe at work, versus feeling secure, speaking up and being their authentic selves. 

In this way, says Welch-McClure, “no matter what people are doing in learning about diversity, inclusion and belonging, they can connect everything back to the core concept of unconscious bias — because it literally permeates everything.” 

Measure Outcomes

It’s impossible to determine whether your workplace is actually reducing unconscious bias without monitoring outcomes. Welch-McClure recommends two key methods:

  1. Retention/attrition data: Are people from underrepresented groups staying with your company long-term or running for the door? This proxy metric will help gauge the sense of psychological safety employees feel and how well your organization is supporting inclusivity and belonging.
  1. Employee surveys: Conduct ongoing, anonymous employee feedback surveys with specific questions focused on DEIB+ issues. Do women and BIPOC employees feel as though they’re treated fairly, that they’re welcomed and that they’re supported? Do they feel they have adequate mentorship opportunities or are there other resources that would help them thrive?

Though an intangible concept like unconscious bias can be difficult to pinpoint, asking pointed questions will help get closer to a true metric for measuring training results.

Lead by Example

Effective unconscious bias training requires buy-in from the top down. Business leaders can help set the tone by publicly challenging their own thinking, looking for signs of double standards and critically questioning recruitment and promotion decisions.

“Having leadership willing to fund unconscious bias training, to talk about the importance of it and to demonstrate the work they're doing on themselves is the difference between having to explain why we're doing the training and being able to deliver content, provide that training and facilitate meaningful conversations,” says Welch-McClure, noting that Indeed’s core value of inclusion,“helps people understand that it is part of the fabric of the company embedded in everything we do.”

Make Lasting, Systemic Change

Committing to change on a systemic level is essential to making a lasting difference. Bias-proofing the hiring process is a great place to start, says Welch-McClure, and goes hand in hand with unconscious bias training. Process-oriented hiring keeps our instinct to make mental shortcuts in check, while learning about unconscious bias helps people understand the “why” behind this approach. 

Start by designing a structured interview process that removes room for bias, including interview questions that map to the skills you’re hiring for, not personal traits. In addition, train all hiring managers and interviewers on strategies for conducting fair and equitable interviews and encourage them to actively challenge bias in the hiring process.

“How do we work together collectively to ensure our hiring processes are equitable and as free as possible from unconscious bias?” asks Welch-McClure. “As humans, there's always going to be some bias, because our brains are wired that way. But that’s why we challenge our discomfort.”