TORONTO — The race-based failings of many of the companies seeking help from diversity and inclusion expert Hamlin Grange are not new.
Neither are the solutions, he notes wryly. Many organizations who’ve reached out already have diversity plans, or they’ve completed cultural awareness courses in the past.
So what’s going wrong?
It’s tempting to say anti-bias training doesn’t work, and many people have, with scrutiny in recent years focusing on the various ways well-meaning programs can miss the mark.
There certainly have been issues, Grange allows, but he says no program can succeed without its participants acknowledging and addressing deep systemic issues that require sustained effort to change, at all levels of an organization.
“It’s not good enough to bring in unconscious bias training and think you have checked a box and it’s all done,” says Grange, president of the Toronto-based consulting agency DiversiPro.
“Too many organizations do that.”
Grange says he’s been flooded with calls for help in recent days as many companies struggle to acknowledge widespread protests over anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism and police violence. Questions range from how to craft a message of solidarity to how to fix their own diversity and inclusion problems.
University of Toronto behavioural expert Sonia Kang says recent trends focus on undoing implicit bias, essentially an attempt to teach people how to stop unconscious racist or sexist behaviour. But she says it doesn’t work.
“Companies have invested billions of dollars into implicit bias or unconscious bias training and basically it has zero effect on actual behaviour,” says Kang, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and HR management.
“If anything, it’s a nice conversation-starter because it gets people thinking about this issue, but in terms of actual change it doesn’t really get us anywhere.”
One theory is that such training can foster a false sense that your bias has been reduced, says Marie-Helene Budworth, an associate professor in human resource management at York University.
“So you actually make your decisions more firmly towards your bias and it gives you a bit of moral licensing,” she says, agreeing that some people may even double down on their bias.
“Not always, but it is a possible outcome, and it can happen for two reasons: one is backlash, like a sense of … ‘I’m not biased, I don’t want to be told how to do this, I can do this,’ and there’s a bit of doubling down. And the other one is this false sense of security in your ability to make these decisions.”
Then there is the “lean-in” approach, in which programs teach minorities or women how to navigate the system by speaking up for themselves. That, too, doesn’t work, because it places the onus of solving oppression on the people being oppressed.
“They might be able to get past one step, or one hurdle, but there’s always one more step, there’s always one more hurdle and you can’t really beat the system if the system’s not changing,” Kang says.
“What we need to do more of is system-level change, thinking about the processes and structures that exist that are biased, and then removing those altogether.”
There are several ways to do this, especially in hiring practices, says Budworth: Anonymize resumes to avoid bias against a name commonly associated with a racialized group. Advertise job openings across a range of channels that target a range of demographics. Use inclusive job criteria, or be aware that certain criteria, such as an MBA, might skew applicants towards a specific group, in this case, white men.
“In every piece within your organization think about the different things that are in place that limit who gets access,” Budworth says.
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