Government scrapping unconscious bias training for civil servants

Hi all

Some of you may have seen on the news today that Govt is scrapping unconscious bias training for staff.  Whilst I know that some of this relates to the training which is 'surface level' rather than a deeper dive into institutional and societal disadvantage I wondered what the feeling was in this group about whether it has any impact or not.


  • I think the more interesting question is what would you replace it with?
  • Hi Joanne

    I have gone through a bit of a journey on this. I started out thinking that initiatives like name-blind recruitment simply moved the opportunity for bias into a later stage in recruitment and that training was the way to go. However, I have now read a lot more on the subject and the consensus seems to be that unconscious bias training doesn't make much of a dent in unconscious bias but that name-blind recruitment really does make a difference to the diversity of people recruited.

    Therefore, for me this is only half the story. If they are ditching the training but are adopting/have adopted practical steps such as name-blind recruitment, then I think that could well be a good use of public money. If they are stopping the training but not doing anything else, then I am appalled.
  • In reply to Peter Stanway:

    It took me two paragraphs to say that!
  • Hi Joanne
    I'm in total agreement with my colleagues comments on this. Unconscious bias has been shown to be a surface level approach that's not very effective.
    To answer Peter's question: what's needed is a systemic approach at the organisational level. For those who are interested here's an academic paper to ponder:
  • In reply to Peter Stanway:

    Absolutely - it needs and deserves a deeper review for it to make any kind of impact in my view.
  • For me, I think the issue is what actually constitutes "unconscious bias training". Research has shown that simply introducing people to the concept actually reinforces their biases for a range of reasons. For the training to be effective, you actually have to give people the tools to mitigate their biases. Blind-hiring is simply one of those.
  • Steve Bridger

    | 0 Posts

    Community Manager

    16 Dec, 2020 11:14

    In reply to Peter Stanway:

    Hi All... good discussion.

    blogged about this in the summer, which you may not have seen.

    Unconscious bias training is not the go-to solution

  • In reply to Ian Bruce:

    Can the intentions of name-blind recruitment be undone once you get to the interview stage? Is it not a sticking plaster for a deeper problem? Can work be a place that really change people's minds about their deep rooted beliefs? Or should we aim for at least making work practices fairer, whether people's personal views are changed or not?
  • A report by the Behavioural Insights Team has just been published on GOV.UK that investigates the evidence for unconscious bias training:
  • Jonny

    | 0 Posts

    CIPD Staff

    16 Dec, 2020 13:00

    In reply to Elizabeth:

    I'd agree, and it's great to see some consensus here. It looks like the tide is turning on UBT. Perhaps we'll soon look back on it as a well-intentioned but ineffective fad...
    I’ve spoken to a few journalists about it in the last couple of days & interestingly they all asked if this move was part of a ‘culture war’ against ‘woke’ practices. But my understanding is the Civil Service remains equally committed to EDI and wants to replace UBT with something more effective, which would be great.
    What to replace it with? I don't think we'll ever stop using learning interventions for EDI, but the research evidence suggests we can make it more effective by focusing it on *perspective taking*. This is not the same as teaching about the psychology of bias (which has very limited impacts that don't last & which can backfire, increasing bias!).
    But training is clearly not enough, partly because it focuses on individuals and we need solutions that are also systemic.
  • Some great article and links shared below Anna, Steve and Geof - thank you. I'd like to add this podcast which I found an interesting listen, packed full of thought provoking insights to the mix. directory.libsyn.com/.../15642734

    Personally, I think the Government (of any political persuasion) seems to struggle to make visible cultural and systemic change on equity, equality, diversity and inclusion. It's not an easy task to do across policy making and wide, different contexts. That said, they have reports and research galore and are in a position to make real change, it requires a commitment to lead the change beyond the duration of one parliament and requires a cross party, collaborative and long term view.

    I'm not sure I see much evidence of that commitment as an engaged citizen but I hope that the inequalities that have existed for a very long time and that have been laid bare by Covid will providing the burning platform they might need to act.
  • In reply to Sharon:

    You make an interesting point Sharon.

    The Women's Budget Group ran a Commission on Gender Equality and has recently published a report and recommendations on how to rebuild a more gender equal economy post pandemic.

    So far this has been ignored by government: wbg.org.uk/.../
  • In reply to Anna:

    Thanks for the additional share Anna. Appreciate it.
    I re-read some McKinsey research this week on the disapproportionate impact on already disadvantaged groups as a result of Covid. Another interesting read.

    If the government, or any political party that gets in to power, wants to commit to 'building back better', 'levelling up' or addressing geographical, economic and now digital inequality, they need to use the research they already have (going back years) to get cracking.

    I'm a bit over the talking and the narrative if I am brutally honest.
  • Jonny

    | 0 Posts

    CIPD Staff

    18 Dec, 2020 16:41

    In reply to Sharon:

    Thanks Sharon, a thought provoking comment. I'm not a real insider but I have had some contact with the civil service's employee policy team as a researcher. From what I've seen the civil service has a strong dedication to EDI. A simple example is its leading practices on flexible working, job sharing etc. A more specific example is when I was doing research with them on performance mgt they repeatedly asked what they could do to understand and tackle racial disparities (ethnic minority ees generally faring worse in perf ratings). Let's be clear, that's a sensitive topic, the sort of thing they could be hauled over the coals for in the media, but we know these sorts of differences can exist in many (probably all) environments, the fact they knew this was only because they'd been concerned enough to look into it, & they really were determined to deal with it. Personally I take my hat off to them for being open about such challenges and think the media often doesn't them a fair ride.
  • In reply to Jonny:

    Thanks Jonny and those are useful and very positive insights. I have done work with the civil service & worked across all sectors (public, private and third) permanently and via my own business. This gave me a bit of insight and some appreciation of the complexities and the scrutiny that comes with working in the civil service (freedom of information requests, PMQs etc) and the often simplistic portrayal of their work in the media. It's certainly not easy (like moving a super tanker) and then you add in elected representatives and the public or other stakeholders to the mix as well. It's tough.

    All that said, I'm frustrated, as an outsider looking in, at the slow progress of elected officials who need to lead, model, nudge and champion action. That might be an overly harsh and simplistic viewpoint.

    I also acknowledge that I'm talking from a position of privilege. I can only imagine how those who are disadvantaged view, experience, feel and live the results of the decisions made or actions taken. Progress can't come quick enough for them.