4 Essential Steps for Your Unconscious Bias Program

Unconscious Bias training has received a lot of attention over the past 10 years, and for good reason. As workplaces grow more diverse, we find ourselves working with colleagues from many different backgrounds, by race, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, socio-economic status, religion, and political view. In fact, over 50% of respondents in our recent Workplace Culture Report said they work with 5 or more races, genders, or generations are represented just within their work team. 

Over 900 CEOs have signed the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion Pledge, committing to implementing and expanding unconscious bias training. As diversity practitioners have realized that unconscious bias impacts workplace interactions, meetings, recruiting, assessments, and promotions, they’ve evolved full programs around it. But training and programs haven’t seemed to improve diversity numbers at most companies, and now, amidst economic uncertainty, practitioners and executives alike may be rethinking their approach.

For an unconscious bias program to reach its full potential—to help an organization be more resilient, adaptable, innovative, productive, and profitable—it must connect to the bigger picture. Here we share some foundational strategy work to help you create a successful and impactful unconscious bias program.

Unconscious Bias Workshop Management

Marry it with your company mission

Start with some big sky thinking:

  • What is your company mission, and why does collaboration, innovation, and productive teamwork drive it’s success?
  • Where does your organization have a concentration of people with similar backgrounds? What blindspots might that cause?
  • Who is being unheard and who is underrepresented? As you design your products or services, how will that affect your ability to serve your total addressable market?

Make it motivating

The ability to attract, manage, and retain a diverse team is a modern leadership skill. Managers who have it will accelerate their careers. Executives who understand it will build their reputation and legacy on it. Companies that focus on it will create self-fulfilling success because diverse teams have improved problem-solving, productivity, and innovation. 

Smart colleagues who want to get ahead are always looking to understand how they’ll be measured, what skills the company values, and how they can acquire and showcase those skills. Motivate managers by telling them you value and reward people with an ability to attract, manage, and retain a diverse team. Motivate your employees by telling them you value and reward people who collaborate and contribute within diverse teams.

  • How else might you inspire your executive leadership, managers, teammates, and co-workers to embrace the learning and develop their awareness and empathy skills?
  • What incentives (or penalties) might you put in place to drive the adoption of diversity initiatives around recruiting and retention?
  • What are the rewards of a workforce that’s able to be their authentic selves at work?
  • Who else in your organization has earned the trust and respect to carry the message of the importance of diversity out to the masses?

Create a positive cycle

Research shows we can mitigate unconscious bias by becoming more aware of our assumptions. Many companies have done training, with suggested online tools like Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, to help employees understand they have bias and its impact on others.

However, once employees learn they have bias, they often don’t feel great about themselves. Our clients tell us that their prior training(s) have left employees at a loss, not knowing what to do with their newfound discomfort. Training that is designed to simply educate people on unconscious bias may make some employees withdraw from people who are different from themselves, to reduce the risk they’ll offend someone. Other employees might start asking personal questions of colleagues that are inappropriate or insensitive. In some organizations, underrepresented employees are put in a position where they feel like they need to educate their coworkers on the bias they experience. It’s just a further drag on their time and mental wellness—which is already overspent navigating a biased system to succeed. It’s not an ideal outcome for anyone. This type of experience can stall out a program.

Look for experiences that will create a positive cycle that builds over time, and creates momentum within your organization. Find ways to capture insights that inform and inspire your colleagues, creating a new base from which to learn. It may be as simple as watching documentaries that showcase different experiences, sharing personal stories, or hearing a presentation from a colleague who has overcome a struggle, and talking about it as a group. Every small opportunity to open a mind means forward progress.

At Emtrain, we design our unconscious bias training to wrap the learner in a growth mindset. As the learner goes through our course, they see how assumptions and behaviors might be harmful to others in the organization, and they answer questions about their opinions and observations. We compare that data to that of their colleagues, so the learner can see where they might be an outlier (more or less sensitive than others). We also share back the aggregated, anonymized data with HR and diversity leaders so they have insight into how their organization ranks amongst certain indicators, and how they benchmark versus other companies. In our conversations, we get a feedback loop, that helps us understand the approaches that the healthiest companies take, and some of the remedies to the problems that companies might suffer. 

How might you start to build out similar positive cycles across your program, building on learnings for your employees, your managers, and your diversity team?

Make it measurable

As you set your goals for your unconscious bias program, consider how you’ll measure your progress. Your high-level goals may be directly aligned with corporate goals around talent and diversity and measured accordingly: from the simple (make sure everyone is trained on unconscious bias) to the more complex (improve how managers allocate opportunities, hire and promote) to the longer term (increase year over year percentage of diverse talent in the organization). 

What other goals might be important to your executives, managers, or individuals in your organization? How can you track your program’s deliverables against them, and bring regular reports to these key stakeholders to keep them aligned with your work and informed of your progress?

Another key measure that most programs should also collect employee sentiment data so you can benchmark harder-to-measure dynamics such as increasing empathy for others, diversifying peer networks, and the series of small positive changes in behavior. 

Also, collect a measure of engagement. Do people appreciate your unconscious bias program? Resent it? Think they could be making better use of their time? Or think it’s not doing enough? Are they incorporating their learnings into their own work? 

This feedback will help you gauge your employees, where they are on their unconscious bias journey, and manage them with a customized approach. We’ve identified five employee types who have different reactions to unconscious bias programs. See our next blog for more details.

For more resources, Download a printable Worksheet: Foundational Strategy for an Unconscious Bias Program, check out the CEO Pledge, and Download Emtrain’s Managing Unconscious Bias Guide.

To learn more about Emtrain’s Unconscious Bias program, request a demo.


strategyunconscious bias
Laraine McKinnon
Talent and Culture Strategist Women's Advocate Former Managing Director at BlackRock
View bio

Stay up to date with our blog posts!