Understanding bias

Cognitive biases affect decision-making at all levels and unfortunately these biases may go unnoticed and unidentified. Bias-training programs are designed to help organisations tackle the issue. But, before rolling out a bias training programme firm-wide, ensure that you yourself learn about bias and how to identify different examples. To do so, take the following steps:

  1. Learn
    1. Read Outsmart Your Own Biases from the Harvard Business Review 1
    2. Watch Facebook and Google Ventures’ videos on bias as an overview 2
  2. Identify
    1. Take the Harvard Implicit Association Test  to understand how bias is deeply ingrained 3

”Failing to engage employees as participants in debiasing organizational processes can limit the impact of those efforts 4

Joelle Emerson

Founder and CEO of Paradigm

Training programmes

Social justice or bias training can help tech entrepreneurs and employees to understand how their background and experiences help enrich the position they are in and how it impacts those they interact with.

It is important to tackle bias at organizational level. However, not all training programmes are created equal. Luckily, there is a growing body of research to help us identify effective bias training programmes and how to motivate employees to adopt behaviors which mitigate bias:

Before training

  1. Identify priorities and objectives: Your organization must be serious about what they want to change. Training is effective when designed intentionally to achieve discrete…results. 5 Ask your team (for small companies), or each departmental LDR to write a short list of simple, action-specific targets for their team; if you work at a startup, write one list on behalf of your team. Bring and discuss these targets at the training programme. Make sure that each target may be acted upon after your training. Examples of team targets could include:
    1. Having a team that reflects the society it makes products for
    2. Think more broadly about outcomes for a broad set of customers during project meetings
    3. Think more broadly about team dynamics to ensure everyone feels comfortable and supported
    4. Reduce bias during hiring
  2. Encourage training participation on a volunteer basis: Firms that made bias training mandatory, discovered that this enforced approach activated and stimulated bias creating a less-open minded work environment. 6
  3. Concentrate on positive messaging. Some managers rely on negative messaging to encourage employees to sign up for training. For example, focusing on ‘the legal case for diversity [and less bias] and then listing multiple stories of huge settlements implies the following threat: “Discriminate, and the company will pay the price.”[…] Negative incentives do not generate converts.’ 7 Instead, share the message that bias training helps to build an inclusive workplace. Build on that idea by preceding or following training courses with a team meal to encourage discussion about learnings.
  4. Don’t single out certain groups of employees for training (i.e. managers). Research has found that when selected groups of employees underwent special training, they disliked the implication of needing more work to manage bias and opposed the training. 8

At this stage, be mindful that teams may not have the insight or information with which to commit to ambitious or effective targets before training. In these scenarios, objectives may need to be revisited and revised after training.

Three principles that encourage effective training

  1. Balance the conversation between limiting defensiveness and communicate the value of bias and social justice training.
    “It is important to reduce defensiveness, some training programmes go too far and give the impression that, “we all do this, so it’s okay.” [This normalises bias] and people’s actions are more likely to be influenced by stereotypes. It’s important that training makes clear the importance of managing bias and offer strategies to do so”.9
  2. Structure the content of the workshop around workplace situations.
    A bias training session should focus on specific situations the employees would find in everyday business practice (i.e. hiring and team dynamics). When information is presented in a way that is linked to an employee’s current work environment, they are more likely to remember and act on it.10
  3. Have action-led goals
    Make sure when raising awareness about bias to educate your team on the underlying causes and systems of inequality too. Training should provide employees with both an understanding of the issues and action-orientated plans. Encourage each employee who takes part in a workshop to bring a copy of their team’s objectives, as well as individual goals, along to the session.

”I do see progress towards diversity and inclusion. I recognise that not every company is as lucky to have diversity hard-wired into it as we are. At a start-up, it can be hard to get the talent you want. It can be even harder to find talent while recruiting, or trying to find female coders or data scientists. But if you give in to that mindset and forget about diversity, that’s how problems start – much better that you look to build an inclusive culture from day one.”

Tugce Bulut

Co-founder and CEO of Streetbees

Evaluate Feedback

Following workshop participation, seek feedback from participants by using a short, structured interview to identify positive and negative outcomes. Not only will this contribute to benchmarking your strategy, it will also reinforce the fact that your D&I strategy is about having conversations at all levels in the company.

Evaluate the feedback against the priorities you determined earlier on for your business case. Does the feedback support the priorities you previously listed? Does the feedback suggest new priorities to consider? Update your list of priorities accordingly.

  1. Soll, J et al. Outsmart your own biases, Harvard Business Review (May 2015), accessed on October 01, 2018.
  2. Facebook, Managing Bias, https://managingbias.fb.com/
  3. Harvard, Implicit Association Test, https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html
  4. Emerson, J. Don’t Give Up on Unconscious Bias Training – Make It Better. HBR: April 28th, 2017, online.
  5. Emerson, J. Don’t Give Up on Unconscious Bias Training – Make It Better. HBR: April 28th, 2017, online.
  6. Dobbin, F and Kalev, A. Why Diversity Programs Fail. 2016, HBR, online.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Dobbin, F and Kalev, A. Why Diversity Programs Fail. 2016, HBR, online.
  10. Ibid.