Christopher Bouriat, Reed Smith

Last month, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson announced that Starbucks would require implicit bias training for its 175,000 employees in response to an April 12 incident in one of its stores in which an employee’s call to police complaining about two black men sitting in a Starbucks resulted in a widely reported and protested arrest in Philadelphia. Critics of Starbucks’ response called implicit bias training a trendy tool that dilutes corporate responsibility. Many experts disagree and believe implicit bias training, when done well, may be one of the best training tools companies have.

Here are a few ways to assist your company in delivering effective implicit bias training.

Employers—particularly human resources professionals and in-house employment lawyers—have long battled bias in hiring and other employment decisions. Employers have many tools at their disposal, such as anti-discrimination policies, employee handbooks and various trainings. A recent trend in training has been unconscious or implicit bias training. And it’s no wonder why: the idea that you can methodically eliminate one’s implicit bias is attractive because it’s blameless—everyone is told they have some bias and can’t avoid it—and it can explain why bias remains despite the ubiquity of other prophylactic measures like company policies and employee handbooks.

Implicit bias training is not without its critics though. Critics claim that it doesn’t have a measurable effect on diversity numbers and can even backfire because once a manager is told everyone has implicit bias it becomes more socially acceptable to have such a bias. At least one recent meta-analysis—”A Meta-Analysis of Change in Implicit Bias” by Patrick Forscher, Calvin Lai, Jordan R. Axt, Charles R. Ebersole, Michelle Herman, Patricia Devine and Brian Nosek (2016) (a study of hundreds of other studies)—concluded that although implicit bias is malleable, changing implicit bias does not necessarily lead to changes in behavior.

But that does not mean that HR professionals and employment counsel should scrap implicit bias training all together. Many experts maintain it is one of the best tool employers have to stamp out bias in the here and now. Perhaps the right question is: how can we make implicit bias training better?

Here are three tips that experts give to aid in assisting people in overcoming their implicit biases.

What Is It?

Before addressing how to improve on training surrounding implicit bias, employers should understand what implicit bias is. Implicit bias is a term that refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect human understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner. Implicit bias is often associated with unfavorable race, ethnicity, age or gender bias, but it actually encompasses both favorable and unfavorable assessments that occur without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. The most famous implicit bias test is known as the “IAT” and has been published by Harvard University (anyone can take it here). The IAT measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy). Proponents of implicit bias tests maintain that the tests can inform you of a preference for white or black faces and other stereotypes you may harbor.

Statistical analysis of the results of implicit bias tests, like the IAT, indicates that most people harbor some unconscious biases. It is less clear whether those biases are always bad. Employers face a serious problem when our unconscious biases lead managers to favor one group in the workplace over another based on a protected category. State and federal laws expressly prohibit employers from making employment decisions on the basis of protected categories including race and gender bias.

How Can Implicit Bias Training Be Best Implemented?

Implicit bias training seeks to bring self-awareness of employees’ biases in an effort to recognize and acknowledge a bias and implement methods to avoid such a bias to effect decision-making. The goal is to leave participants with a higher understanding of unconscious bias and more motivation to mitigate that bias. Here are some tips to consider when implementing this type of training with your workforce.

  • Avoid participant’s defensiveness, but limit acceptability of implicit bias.

Most anti-discrimination trainings do well—perhaps a little too well—to reduce its participant’s defensiveness by giving the impression that implicit bias effects “everyone” and that “we all have implicit biases.” Stereotyping may increase when unconscious bias is simply normalized. An effective training will highlight that unconscious or implicit bias may creep into decision-making and that its effects will negatively impact teams, diversity initiatives, and, ultimately, the company’s bottom line. In other words, it is not acceptable to allow your implicit bias to occur without acknowledgement or processes to mitigate potential effects. It is important that training make clear the importance of managing bias and offer strategies to do so.

  • Use real workplace situations.

Although unconscious bias training draws on science and research, to make the training more effective and applicable for employees, it should be organized around regular, repeated workplace scenarios. For instance, most workplaces have at least two workplace scenarios that occur at least once annually: hiring and compensation or bonus decisions.

Research shows that when information is presented in the form of realistic day-to-day scenarios, people are better able to remember it. To give the best chance of success, use different scenarios that are specific to the group, team, or division of people being trained. If the employees being trained make bonus decisions, train the group on this type of scenario. Create awareness for the reasons behind the company’s policies. For example, before making bonus or raise decisions managers must remember that the company uses a consistent rubric or measures to evaluate the employees they supervise so that the evaluators’ implicit biases are mitigated.

  • Create better engagement.

Because raising awareness about implicit bias (and how everyone has it) can backfire when not paired with strategies for managing bias, it is important that your implicit bias training gives participants the tools to implement action oriented strategies. For example, experts recommend role playing strategies. This strategy complements the second tip about real workplace situations. For instance, in conducting interviews and making hires, you can mock up an interview and note whether employees ask all candidates for the same role the same questions. People learn better when participating and actively engaged in the training.

Remember, it’s called training for a reason. Often a company’s expectations for one training session are unrealistic. Much like any other skill-building (think sports or music), training is a form of coaching led by a skilled practitioner. It is not a silver bullet for eliminating all bias from a person or, collectively, the workplace. Training should be offered and engaged in at regular intervals for the best results.

Christopher Bouriat is an associate in the labor and employment group in Reed Smith’s Pittsburgh office. His practice focuses on defending and counseling employers on issues involving discrimination and harassment, contractual disputes, restrictive covenants, disability and leave laws, wage and hour, and pay equity.