Why Unconscious Bias Training Alone Doesn’t Work

Why Unconscious Bias Training Alone Doesn’t Work

Dear Ryan,

 Many thanks for your follow call and follow up email.

 I understand from (insert D&I job title and name here) that he contacted you recently to advise that we are rolling out our own equalities training around unconscious bias awareness training.

 Thank you for taking the time to contact us.


(Insert CEO)


In the last 5 years, one of the common themes you will notice when an organisation gets in some sort of controversy (especially where race is concerned) the PR team will at some point talk about “unconscious bias training”! Unconscious bias training has become to company PR teams what consciously uncoupling is to celebrity breakups.

A large American coffee company and coffee house chain was recently in the news because of accusations of racial profiling in its US stores. The two men were waiting for a friend when the manager called the police. The manager had felt that these two gentlemen could not possibly be there for a meeting and his only logical conclusion was they were trespassing. In a video, their business partner they were waiting for arrived just in time to see the people he was meeting escorted. The executive of this American coffee company and coffee house chain announced he was “embarrassed” and would close all US stores for company-wide “racial bias training”. The closure of the 8,000 stores for one day would give staff the opportunity to benefit from a few hours training and the organisation would start transforming the way they conduct their business.

The biggest mistake an organisation can make when dealing with Inclusion in the workplace is failing to understand the systems that exclude certain groups of people. When women spoke about being wolf whistled in the workplace by male colleagues, there was a tendency to dismiss it and in some cases tell them to take it as a compliment. When we look at the gender pay gap and the inequality of pay between men and women the first thought should be to understand the systems in place that benefit the men. By truly understanding how broken that system is, an organisation can put in place a system that benefits everyone. And this doesn’t only cover Gender, you can add Race, Disability, LGBT+ and many other minority groups to that list.

In the case of the large American coffee company and coffee house chain, understanding racism goes beyond closing the shops for one day and telling its staff to no longer be racist. Society has a racism problem and a lot of organisations fail to acknowledge this until their store is on the news for profiling two men waiting for a friend. We also live in an age where everyone is a reporter with a camera phone and a social media account and in some cases these incidents can be streamed live as they take place.

This brings me to the email at the top and the response I received from the CEO after he had consulted his Head of Policy, who hadn’t spoken to me by the way. When you operate in the D&I space, you speak to a lot of organisations about the subject.

The unconscious bias training line will be used by more companies in the future, hopefully they will be doing more than Starbucks….I mean a large American coffee company and coffee house!



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