eLearning and Unconscious Bias

Challenging an unconscious bias is an important first step to addressing it.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “bias” as being a preference or inclination – particularly one that inhibits impartial judgement. It can also be an unfair act or policy springing from prejudice.

We all have preferences. People feel more comfortable with others who are like them, or that they have things in common with. We can be put off by certain traits which is sometimes known as affinity bias. This particular bias can lead to favouritism towards others whom we consider to be more “like us”. In extreme cases this can have severe consequences.

The Unconscious Element

Feelings of bias may be present in most of our decision-making, even if we’re not aware of them. Fairness and objectivity are two of the unwritten job specifications for working with human resources. You must listen to others’ views, try to see the whole picture, and never take sides.

But everyone – often without even realising it – harbours unconscious views about people with certain characteristics. These may influence their choices in recruitment, promotion and performance management. Just a little bit of misinformation about someone can impact hugely on their ability to progress.

It’s this unconscious bias that we need to examine and overcome in order to reach fair and impartial judgements. And this is where eLearning comes into the equation.

Becoming Aware

This is the first stage. Once we become aware of our biases, we can train ourselves to think differently about certain traits, and subsequently change our actions.

To help you in this process, you can take an online test called “Project Implicit”, developed by Harvard University in the USA. The test is free (you have to register, for the full package). Becoming aware of the problem is the precursor to training in methods of dealing with it.

Objectives of Unconscious Bias eLearning

At the wider scale:

To help your employees understand the implications of the natural biases we all hold
To explain how we can overcome unconscious bias to improve decision making and professional relationships
To become aware of how these issues are dealt with by current legislation
To help create more open, inclusive and effective organisations

Drilling down…

To understand the link between diversity, productivity and business benefits
To develop an enhanced appreciation of the nature and prevalence of bias
To become familiar with key frameworks for identifying, addressing and reducing bias.

And, at the personal level:

Defining the terms related to the concept of Unconscious Bias
Identifying the filters through which you view and interpret yourself and others
Exploring patterns in your ways of evaluating other people, based on your own cultural background
Examining the areas where unconscious perception and culture have the potential to impact your beliefs
Applying this new knowledge to your everyday work experience

Course Structure

Typically, the course should begin with some form of pre-workshop exercise, in which participants explore their own levels of unconscious bias. Then, issues of bias in the workplace may be addressed.

To do this, learners could (for example) be immersed in a simulated environment, as a new hire beginning a career in a new organisation. Each visit on the orientation tour would give learners the chance to absorb and practice new concepts and skills.

Participants should be given a comprehensive understanding of the following:

• How we’re all in it together: If we accept that it’s human nature to be unconsciously biased, then we can develop a shared and an individual responsibility to address this.
• Bias, itself: And the difference between bias, prejudice and stereotyping.
• Unconscious bias in the workplace, and why it matters: How it affects decision making in areas like recruitment, human resource development, performance management, leadership and marketing.
• Types of bias: An exploration of how unconscious bias works, including “implicit association”, “affinity bias” and “the unconscious organisation”.
• How to override natural bias: Practical ways to challenge our own biases, consciously break habits and do things differently.

A test (optional) may be set at the end of the course, to assess staff on the level of knowledge they’ve retained. Pass rates can be set as required. The platform or package you choose should be adaptable to the specifics of your organisation. You should, for example, be able add your own graphics, photos & video, and amend content to reflect your own policies, procedures and key areas of interest.

Beyond the Course…

A number of follow-up activities may be adopted, to maintain a level of awareness of what has been learned.

For example:

A voluntary, twice-weekly email, prompting staff to think differently about others.
Offer podcasts, videocasts, email shots or short film-clips – all providing talking points on issues raised in the course.
Consult suppliers, such as recruitment agencies or head-hunters, on what they’re doing to raise awareness of unconscious bias.

And be aware that, in the current (tough) economic climate, bias tends to become more defined – all the more reason to fight against it.