Why Implicit Bias Training Must Be the First Step of Any Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiative

Photo: Getty Images/Kathrin Ziegler
Since George Floyd's death on May 25, discussions about institutionalized racism have cropped up in spheres of life that include the personal, the political, and beyond. In the workplace, these conversations often focus on improvement by centering "diversity, equity, and inclusion" (or DEI) initiatives, which is basically corporate speak for the process of acknowledging problems of inequality and inequity and working to change them. In fact, Google searches for "DEI training" increased immediately after Floyd's death and continue to remain high, which is a positive sign of forward progress. But DEI educators want employers to know that cultivating a safe, anti-racist workplace isn't as simple as hiring a trainer or setting up a few workshops.

Experts In This Article
  • Akilah Cadet, DHSc, MPH, Akilah Cadet, DHSc, MPH, is a diversity educator and activist who holds a Bachelor of Science in Health Education in Community Based Public Health, a Master of Public Health, and a Doctorate of Health Sciences in Leadership and Organizational Behavior.
  • James Kinney, James Kinney is a bi-coastal HR executive, author, and speaker. Kinney has over 13 years of experience as an in-house practitioner and external consultant.

In order to effectively address the issues that might be harming Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in the workplace, all employees first need to be able to identify the implicit biases that drive their actions. That's why implicit bias training, a deeply introspective and often difficult form of self-work, is a necessary first step to any DEI initiative taking shape.

"Implicit bias training or unconscious bias training is basically exploring your subconscious thoughts, beliefs, and stereotypes," says Akilah Cadet, DHSc, diversity consultant, executive coach, and founder of Change Cadet. "[These beliefs] are so ingrained in how you operate that you might not even see how you're being biased towards what you feel most comfortable and familiar with.

"[Implicit biases] affect everything in the workplace from promotions to who's hired to who's fired. It also trickles down to campaigns, marketing, and social media because people will go to what is comfortable for them," says Dr. Cadet. Take, for example, the McKinsey & Company's 2020 Women in the Workplace Survey, which found that for every 100 white men promoted to manager, 85 white women and only 58 Black women and 71 Latinx women were promoted. The survey also found that Black women were less likely than white women to feel supported at work during COVID-19.

"[Implicit biases] affect everything in the workplace from promotions, to who's hired, to who's fired." — diversity consultant Akilah Cadet, DHSc

James Kinney, a human resources consultant, often points to a 2016 study published in Administrative Science Quarterly to illustrate how pervasive biases can be in a company. The researchers sent out fake resumes and ultimately concluded that Black and Asian job applicants who "whitened" their names on their CVs were more than twice as likely to receive a callback than those who did not. This indicates that those who were reading those resumes were biased based on name alone—and ostensibly without even realizing it.

If you can't see your biases, they'll naturally percolate into any actions you take to create an anti-racist workplace. That not only defeats the whole point of DEI efforts, but it could also make the work environment more toxic. "If you're operating from a place of blind spots, then how can you make fully conscious decisions?" Kinney asks. "If a company is actually making a concerted and conscious effort to be successful, creative, profitable—whatever [key performance indicator] you want to set—we can't do that if we have blind spots that we're not aware of." That, he says, is the importance of implicit bias training.

During training, employees are forced to confront their prejudices head-on, with the goal that future decisions don't negatively affect BIPOC and any employees without access to any number of privileges. "In implicit bias training, you're going through activities, having discussions, and doing all that you can to be aware of those subconscious feelings so that you can hold yourself accountable to not being implicitly biased or having unconscious bias," says Dr. Cadet. One example of an implicit bias training exercise is something she calls the "cultural iceberg" activity.

"Although a lot of people think icebergs are big, the majority of the iceberg is underwater. So 10 percent is above the water—that's what you can see. But when we go below the water, there's 90 percent more that people can't see," says Dr. Cadet. People and situations are the same way—and when no one takes the time to learn about that 90 percent beneath the surface, implicit biases step in to paint an unfair, inaccurate image of the full iceberg.

As someone with a disability that's not visible, Dr. Cadet says she often runs into people who assume things about her because of their own biases. "You don't know I have shortness of breath. You don't know that it's going to be incredibly hard for me to go grocery shopping, and I'm going to be exhausted afterward," she says. "When I share those things, I can minimize stereotypes. Someone else may share something about them afterward."

The iceberg training—and, more generally, implicit bias training—is a type of empathy work. It's a way to understand people's experience of the world so that you can honor it and ultimately make subsequent DEI work—like closing salary gaps, facilitating equitable hiring practices, and creating a safe space for all—more effective.

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