UK government follows US with ban on unconscious bias training

By on 16/12/2020 | Updated on 16/12/2020
One of the purposes of unconscious bias training is to increase diversity. Credit: Gilberto A. Viciedo/Flickr/cc2.0

The UK government is phasing out unconscious bias training for civil servants and encouraging all public sector bodies to follow suit, in a move that echoes a similar decision by the Trump administration little more than two months ago. 

In a written statement, Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez said that the government had concluded that such training, which it was hoped would increase the diversity of the civil service, had been found to be ineffective and possibly counterproductive.  

“Ministers have concluded that unconscious bias training does not achieve its intended aims,” Lopez said. “It will therefore be phased out in the civil service. We encourage other public sector employers to do likewise.” 

The decision came after the Government Equalities Office commissioned the Behavioural Insights Team – a ‘nudge’ unit spun out of government – to produce a summary of the evidence on unconscious bias and diversity training.  

Its report said that “there is currently no evidence that this training changes behaviour in the long term or improves workplace equality in terms of representation of women, ethnic minorities or other minority groups”. It also states that there is emerging evidence of unintended negative consequences.

Asking for a new plan 

However, the government was immediately criticised by one of the main unions representing civil servants for failing to come up with a replacement for unconscious bias training, given the compelling evidence of prejudice within the civil service. 

“There are swathes of hard data, from staff appraisal markings and success in career progression to evidence from staff attitude surveys, which show that our workplaces are not as diverse and inclusive as they should be,” said Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham. 

“While there is a debate as to the effectiveness of unconscious bias training, simply scrapping it without setting out alternative ways to combat discrimination in the workplace is not acceptable. The government must demonstrate that it takes these issues seriously and set out the steps it proposes to take.” 

In a statement, consultancy the Leadership Trust added that unconscious bias training could be effective, but only if used appropriately. “For many companies, it is a way to tick a box and fulfil their corporate social responsibility,” it said. 

“It is used as a means to an end; to show their stakeholders that they care, without actually concerning themselves with the standard of training provider they choose, nor the effectiveness of said training. A quick video and multiple-choice quiz will never undo a lifetime of bias.” 

It added: “For unconscious bias training to have its proposed effect. It needs to not only highlight the prevalence of unconscious bias within us all, but also go a step further and provide tools to counter said biases.” 

Following the outgoing president

The UK government’s decision follows a similar announcement by American president Donald Trump, who in October issued an executive order banning government contractors from providing employees with certain forms of diversity training. The order forbids what it calls “divisive concepts”, such as training sessions based on “race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating”. 

The order prohibited training that implies that the US is a racist or sexist nation; that individuals bear responsibility for acts committed by members of their own race or sex; or that meritocracy in the US was created to favour members of certain races or sexes. 

It also established a complaint procedure for employees made to take such training, including a hotline set up by the Labor Department. Contractors found to have violated the order’s terms may have their contracts “canceled, terminated, or suspended in whole or in part” and the vendor may be “ineligible for further government contracts”, the order said. 

Psyche Williams-Forson, who chairs the American Studies department at the University of Maryland, told Reuters that the order is a way to ease the minds of people who “do not want to confront the horror of their ancestry” and added that it would likely result in a sharp reduction in diversity training across the federal government.  

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