Worth a try: anti-bias education in the workplace

Does mandatory anti-bias education in the workplace effectively address racial bias by employees? Who does it benefit in the long run? And can workplace programs sufficiently address the historical complexity of racial bias individuals have faced? Professors at the Wharton School explore the current need for anti-bias training, and highlight what previous research has concluded from studies conducted in the workplace.

The recent arrest of two “loiterers” at a Starbucks in Philadelphia may have been chalked up to the barista’s “unconscious bias,” but the company responded with a half-day mandatory closure of stores for racial-bias education. Arguably, the isolated incident exposed the fact that while unconscious bias may be internalized individually, it plays out regularly throughout the country. And recognizing the prevalence of these incidents is important to understanding its effect on the populations targeted.

But will closing the national chain for half a day to train employees have a positive long-term effect? “The evidence is really flimsy on whether diversity training works,” says Wharton professor Stephanie Creary. But focusing on behavioral change in the short-term can lead to long-term attitude shifts. 

For the people who are targeted by racial bias, corporate training may change their colleague’s behavior at work, but no amount of anti-bias education will address the systemic bias populations face throughout their personal and work lives. 

While more companies are adopting anti-bias training to preempt lawsuits and reduce bias on-site, the downside is that trainings can promote backlash, or leaned on in place of diversifying recruitment and promotion. But studies have shown that it is better to try. Wharton professor Sigal Barsade explains that people respond positively to understanding how unconscious bias works from a psychological standpoint, and are open to proactively addressing it on a personal and professional level.

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