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How unconscious bias impacts on training design

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16th Jan 2014
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HRZone will be exhibiting at Learning Technologies on January 29th and 30th at Olympia 2 in London. The exhibition, which brings together leading companies in the training and HR sphere, is completely free to attend, and there's a paid-for conference programme that offers insight from thought leaders in the L&D sphere. Topics to be explored include mobile learning, disruptive innovation, how people learn, Google Glass and much more. Register free for the exhibition and make sure you stop by and visit HRZone on stand 163.

When presenting training programmes, most trainers are highly aware of the need to provide a learning environment that is supportive and inclusive for all those attending. A trainer worth their salt will be mindful that the training room must be free of any hint of discrimination. The dignity and respect of other people, their opinions and contribution is essential if learning is to take place and all feel equally valued.

Direct or indirect discrimination in the training room is destructive and counter-productive to learning. Most people understand that when people discriminate consciously it is either due to prejudice or ignorance.

What is less known is that people discriminate against one group, or individual, in favour of another without even realising they are doing it. What is perhaps more striking is that it is against their own conscious belief that they are unbiased in their decision-making, or comments.

A good trainer will always be mindful to watch for hints of discrimination from delegates, whether coming from a delegate’s conscious or unconscious mind.

However, if we see evidence of unconscious bias coming from delegates, what about the dangers of unconscious bias coming from trainers. Bad enough that this comes through during the actual delivery of a programme, but what if a trainer’s unconscious biases crept into the design of a learning and development programme? How might this manifest itself?

Let us look at a very specific example. As a result of taking an Implicit Association Test a highly experienced in-house trainer reflected on the feedback. The test showed a very strong bias against older generations. The trainer felt quite embarrassed about this feedback and his initial reaction was to deny the validity of the results.

Then his thoughts immediately went back six months, when he had been involved in designing and implementing a one day soft skills programme for 12 individuals. This group had been newly recruited to work on a help desk advising callers on pension rights and retirement options. What was unusual about this project was the new recruits, were all retirees, age range from 65 to 75 years, who were being developed to provide callers with the benefit of their retirement experiences, as well as provide information on company retirement policies and procedures.

The more the trainer reflected on the project, the more aware he became of how he had approached it and his reaction when initially told about the plans to recruit retirees for the role. He had been taken aback that people over 65 were being taken on and had questioned the decision.

During his preparation of the programme content, he clearly remembered thinking that the content needed to be pitched at a lower level and his pace needed to slow down. When a colleague had suggested a blended learning approach to save time in the training room, he had rejected the idea with no consideration at all. If he was honest with himself, he rejected the suggestion of e-learning, because he saw the more mature delegate as having a phobia of IT.

So what is the solution and how do we guard against this happening? We know that once awareness of bias is raised from the unconscious to the conscious level, attitudes and behaviours change and improve the quality of the decision-making process.

Trainers and the programmes they design can greatly benefit from the trainer being made aware of their unconscious biases.

The most effective tool available for testing individuals’ unconscious bias is ‘Implicitly’, an Implicit Association Test that is available in a number of variants designed to assess social preferences with regards to disability, age, gender, sexual orientation and ethnic origin. Specialist facilitators are qualified to carry out ‘Implicitly’ as well as to provide the coaching recommended to accompany the result feedback process.

Once trainers become aware of their unconscious behaviours they can take conscious steps to change them where they need to be and reflect this in the design of learning events.

It is the responsibility of us in the field of learning to ensure that everything possible is done to enhance the experience of all our delegates and to guard against anything that might make them feel less than equal and included.

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By Vernal Scott 0
11th Feb 2014 15:53

This is a timely reminder that trainers are themselves susceptible to unconscious bias and can deliver a much more compelling learning experience if they are self aware. I have personally met trainers who appear more comfortable/fluent with one equality characteristic over another. This doesn't mean they are less professional, but it does mean they have work to do on themselves before their trainees can truly benefit unconscious bias learning. 

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