If we can’t change the mind, is process the answer? What works when it comes to training and diversity and inclusion?

The above question is one that I am asked most frequently.

Many of you will recall last year the coffee shop, Starbucks, closed more than 8,000 of its stores in the United States to provide “racial bias” training for its 175,000 employees. Starbucks’ Chief Operating Officer, Roz Brewer, said the sessions would focus on “unconscious bias training,” a form of diversity education that focuses on the hidden causes of everyday racial discrimination. But does such equality, diversity and inclusion training work? Does the training change attitudes, let alone behaviour?


So, what does the evidence tells us? Let me point to four examples:

  1. Paluk and Green (2009): ‘Prejudice reduction’ examined hundreds of studies and concluded that a small fraction speak convincingly to the questions of whether, why, and under what conditions a given type of intervention works. They concluded that the causal effects of many widespread prejudice-reduction interventions, such as workplace diversity training and media campaigns, remain unknown.
  2. Pitts and Wise (2010): ‘Diversity in public sector’ – argued that although diversity issues remain salient, usable knowledge is in short supply. Only a small portion provide practical, action-based findings for public managers. They argue that there is little research that would allow public sectors managers to step beyond best guesses for what does and does not work for managing diversity. Scholars are focusing on factors that managers cannot manipulate.
  3. Alhejji et al (2015):’Diversity training review’ – this work highlighted a number of trends: (a) research on diversity training outcomes is published in a diverse set of publication outlets; (b) studies utilise a narrow range of theoretical perspectives; (c) methodologically, studies suffer from significant limitations including small sample sizes, poor use of diversity training measures, too much reliance on self-report measures and little longitudinal investigation of outcomes. Therefore, they concluded that the research base is theoretically, methodologically flawed and fragmented.
  4. Equality and Human Rights Commission, Research report 113, Unconscious bias training (UBT): An assessment of the evidence for effectiveness – (a) UBT is effective for awareness raising by using an Implicit association test (IAT) (followed by a debrief) or more advanced training designs such as interactive workshops (b) UBT can be effective for reducing implicit bias, but it is unlikely to eliminate it (c) UBT interventions are not generally designed to reduce explicit bias and those that do aim to do so have yielded mixed results (d) Using the IAT and educating participants on unconscious bias theory is likely to increase awareness of and reduce implicit bias. The evidence for UBT’s ability to effectively change behaviour is limited. Most of the evidence reviewed did not use valid measures of behaviour change.

So, the picture is mixed but how many of us measure the impact of equality, diversity and inclusion interventions and training? My gut feeling from experience and speaking to many in the field is not many.


This then leads me to an excellent article titled ‘Designing a bias free organisation, Iris Bohnet. She argues that rather than run more workshops or try to eradicate the biases that cause discrimination, organisations need to redesign their processes to prevent biased choices in the first place. Interestingly she recommends the following:

  1. She believes behavioural design can neutralise biased and unleash untapped talent. Organisations should begin with accepting that staff members are hard wired, and minds are difficult to change and eradicate biases. Instead the focus should be on organisational design which in turn call allow biased minds to do things the right way. Taking this approach, she comments that it is ‘liberating to know that bias affects everyone, regardless of their awareness and good intentions. This work is not about pointing fingers at bad people’.

  2. How? Firstly, begin by diagnosing where the problems are, start by collecting data, and then come up with possible solutions, often based on behavioral designs.
  3. In terms of recruitment and selection use structured interviews where every candidate gets the same questions in the same order and score their answers in order in real time. You should also be thinking about how your recruitment approach can skew who even applies. For instance, you should scrutinise your job ads for language that unconsciously discourages either men or women from applying.

  4. Change people’s experiences by surrounding them with role models who look like them which in turn can affect what they think is possible for people like them.
  5. Enlisting men is partly about helping them to see the benefits of equality. Fathers of daughters are some of the strongest proponents of gender equality, for obvious reasons, so they can be particularly powerful voices when it comes to bringing other men along. Research on male CEOs, politicians and judges shows that fathers of daughters care more about gender equality than men without children or with only sons.
  6. A big part is, simply, continued awareness building—not just of the problem but also of the solutions available to organisations.


Lastly, and perhaps crucially, much of the training and associated activities with equality and diversity training does not force us to look at the reality as it stands and really face the true picture of workplace exclusion and inequity. It allows organisations to feel like they are doing a lot whilst in reality very little changes.

To my mind, given the evidence at hand, we should consider focusing on organisational design through evaluation and data and on the environment through the use of behavioural science techniques to help make organisations more equitable and inclusive. In doing so we will be able to demonstrate better evidence-based practice

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