What anti-bias training can — and can’t — accomplish in the workplace

Carefully chosen, well-implemented anti-bias courses can buttress a company’s diversity and inclusion program but are just one part of a larger strategy.
By Amanda Abrams

Chipo Sachirarwe, CPA, Living Cities' COO, has led efforts to create an in-house anti-bias team to develop ideas that can be used in the collaborative's work.
Chipo Sachirarwe, CPA, Living Cities' COO, has led efforts to create an in-house anti-bias team to develop ideas that can be used in the collaborative's work. (Photo by Brian Ach/AP Images)

For a company that's looking to establish or improve its diversity and inclusion initiative, one word will come up over and over: training.

An organization's leaders can go far in creating more equitable policies that encourage the hiring and promotion of employees from a range of backgrounds. But ultimately, diversity and inclusion, or D&I, programs are necessary because they help build awareness of discriminatory attitudes or barriers that may exist. And changing attitudes is difficult, but fostering an environment where employees feel a sense of belonging is crucial to the success of a business.

That's where anti-bias training comes in. Training often motivates positive behaviors that can, in turn, change attitudes. Ideally, they can help the individuals throughout a company identify and overcome their blind spots when it comes to things like race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, so that employees are all on a level playing field. Again, attitudes don't change easily, so training is not a cure-all solution, but it is a great start.

Here's how leaders can adjust their expectations and leverage the training they employ to make it as useful as possible.

NOT CHANGING THE WORLD — SETTING A BASELINE

Spoiler alert: Training is not going to end racism, sexism, or other discrimination or bias within a company.

In fact, training's overall effectiveness is open to debate. "There is ample evidence that training alone does not change attitudes or behavior, or not by much and not for long," wrote Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev in a 2018 study. Dobbin, a Harvard sociology professor, and Kalev, an associate professor in Tel Aviv University's Department of Sociology and Anthropology, have studied the topic extensively. Other studies have reported similar findings, showing that training outcomes are often short-lived at best.

But those who run anti-bias training say that it is not designed to eliminate prejudice once and for all. In fact, training is just a starting point — and it's important to not oversell its potential impact.

"It's about developing a shared language and conceptual frameworks to understand what the problem is," explained Robette Ann Dias, executive director of Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, an Illinois-based organization that has been conducting anti-bias seminars for over 30 years.

After all, she said, racism and other types of prejudice can be sensitive or even taboo subjects in society, and many people are uncomfortable talking about them. "Part of what we need to do is build up our muscles even just to have a conversation in an open and frank way, to get to using the same language," Dias said.

The goal is to develop a mutual vocabulary and a preliminary understanding of the relevant concepts. What is implicit bias, for example, and how might it show up in a particular setting?

Those initial training sessions aren't designed to be life-changing. Some participants may walk away with a new understanding of society's inequalities that could lead them to want to learn more. For the most part, though, training serves as a precursor to accountability. It provides employees with some basic skills that can be used as a baseline. After all, you can't hold someone accountable for a skill they don't currently hold.

WHAT MAKES FOR GOOD TRAINING?

One characteristic of a strong training organization is its ability to integrate the training into the business's overall diversity strategy. "It has to be embedded and woven together," said Laura Sherbin, managing director of Culture@Work, a New York City-based consulting group that helps businesses build their D&I strategies. That might mean beginning with a diagnostic or an assessment to determine the organization's weak spots, designing training to address those issues, providing ample opportunities for employees to practice their new skills, and, finally, running an evaluation at the end of a set period to determine the training's effectiveness.

Companies might wind up conducting many of those activities in-house. It's critical, though, that leaders realize that anti-bias training is rarely "one and done," as Sherbin and others point out. That is, training sessions need to be part of a broader D&I plan, including ongoing efforts to build skills, establish accountability, and adjust policies.

If you don't have a credentialed D&I leader within your organization who has the capacity to design and lead effective anti-bias training, consider hiring an outside consultant. Organizations that specialize in the field are able to research and build courses tailored to narrow objectives.

A good training organization can create a space where participants are comfortable letting down their guard. "It's about relationship building and trust — for example, 'Do I trust this person [the trainer] enough to let them lead me down a path toward exploration?'" said Mary Rice-Boothe, the chief access and equity officer at The Leadership Academy, which provides anti-bias training for education leaders around the country.

The Leadership Academy suggests using ethnically diverse trainers, and intentionally creating mixed-race groups when leading courses, as a way of modeling positive racial interactions. "We take a lot of time to understand the demographics in our audience: Is it majority white or Black? Are they seasoned in their field or new?" Rice-Boothe said.

Personalized design like that is the hallmark of good training, Sherbin said. "Most training that's implemented is cookie-cutter," she said.

A customized course requires trainers who can be both thorough and nimble. Thorough, because they'll need to conduct an assessment or a diagnostic before any training occurs, to better understand who the organization is and what it needs. Nimble, so that they can actively respond to that information rather than falling back on standard material.

But those personalized courses cost more. A company that wants genuinely effective anti-bias training needs to demonstrate that desire by building the cost into its annual training budget.

LEVERAGING THE TRAINING TO BUILD LONG-TERM STRENGTH

While it's important that all of a company's employees experience the same full-spectrum training, several elements in an organization can benefit from particular attention.

Project Include (projectinclude.org), an initiative launched in 2016 to increase D&I in the IT industry, recommends that new employees receive basic anti-bias training during their onboarding. The initiative also emphasizes that managers, given their critical ability to set up a team for success or failure, undergo regular courses to help them better understand their own perspectives and biases. "Successful manager training programs are continuous, and they evolve with the company while directly encouraging career growth and development," reads Project Include's recommendation on manager training.

For upper-echelon leaders, Rice-Boothe said that one-on-one training can be remarkably effective. "When it comes to a CEO, it's hard for them to say, 'I messed up; I was biased when I made this decision.' That's especially true with race and diversity," she said. Speaking privately with a coach, those leaders can be honest and have a better chance of genuinely grasping their own subjectivity and shortcomings.

Some companies have found ways to use the knowledge they've gained in traditional anti-bias training to benefit the organization long term. For example, Living Cities, a collaborative of large foundations and financial institutions, has created what is essentially an in-house anti-bias team.

"We have this amazing group inside the organization called Colleagues Operationalizing Racial Equity, or CORE. It was built to help us have these conversations internally and then learn how to have them externally in our work," said Chipo Sachirarwe, CPA, Living Cities' COO.

Living Cities had been determined to do a better job at seeing, understanding, and addressing racial inequities in its workplace. In response, the entire staff first participated in multiple-day training to create a baseline understanding of vocabulary and concepts. Living Cities then drew together a handful of interested employees from all levels and areas of the organization to form CORE, which is now responsible for helping staff deepen its racial equity and inclusion practice.

It's a major commitment: CORE members dedicate roughly 25% of their work hours to the group. That time is spent undergoing training themselves, onboarding new employees so that they're quickly up to speed with the organization's priorities, and designing monthly educational programs for the whole staff.

"The curriculum really depends on organizational needs," said Joanna Carrasco, an associate in Living Cities' communications division who is a CORE member. Currently, the group is examining anti-racism principles and how employees can use them on a personal level.

Those monthly trainings aren't optional. And that's important, Sachirarwe said. That way, everyone is fluent in Living Cities' efforts to work toward racial equity and other goals. "These competencies are embedded in the organization: what we do internally and the conversations we want to have externally."

It's a comprehensive approach — the opposite of "one and done."


About the author

Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer based in North Carolina.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.


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