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Unconscious bias training offers education on topics such as the different types of unconscious bias, microaggressions, and allyship and imparts skills such as inclusive management, interviewing and hiring. While unconscious bias training is important, it is often misunderstood as the catch-all solution to address many Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) goals and shortcomings within organizations. But studies from well-known researchers such as Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev reveal that unconscious bias training doesn’t work all the time. Numerous studies show unconscious bias training is ineffective at reducing bias, altering behavior, or changing the workplace.

Harvard researchers uncovered these five reasons for the failure of unconscious bias training:

  1. Short-term education doesn’t change behavior.
  2. Asking people to suppress stereotypes tends to reinforce them.
  3. Training inspires unrealistic confidence in anti-discrimination programs, making employees complacent about their own biases.
  4. The message of multiculturalism makes white people and men feel excluded and reduces their support.
  5. People react negatively to external controls. Mandatory participation and a compliance-based curriculum make people feel that an external power is trying to control their behavior and they are unreceptive to the message.

What You Can Do

Since research proves that unconscious bias training is ineffective, should we eliminate it entirely? Absolutely not. Employees still need education and awareness to combat harmful impacts of unconscious bias in the workplace, but it is only one part of an overall program which considers the following:

  • Make training part of a larger DEI plan. Unconscious bias training alone is not a singular solution to your DEI goals. To improve the impact of training, it’s imperative to make it part of a wider program of organizational change emphasizing structural and systemic issues hampering the success of these training sessions.
  • Include relevant scenarios so people can ground the information in real company practices. Instead of focusing training on the psychological approach (such as exploring confirmation bias), structure the content around workplace situations. This enables content to be more relevant and memorable. For added impact, make the session action oriented. Explicitly cover what behavior makes others feel a sense of belonging and what behavior fosters inclusion.
  • Examine company practices. Scrutinize all aspects of your company practices to assess where systemic issues may be perpetuating inequity. Consider recruiting practices, pay and promotion equity assessments, and the demographic that your culture affirms. Ensure that the message from the training is consistent with company practices.
  • CEO and executive leaders should model behavior. Executive leaders should model behavior by attending the trainings and by doing the work offline to strengthen their ability to talk about these issues publicly. Managers and employees take cues from executives so modeling behavior sets the standard for expectations.
  • Ensure managers are accountable. Managers uphold the practices within any organization. They should attend the training and ensure that their behavior is consistent with the message.

By itself, unconscious bias training has been proven to be ineffective, but paired with a robust strategy and consistent internal company practices, it can work for your organization as you create a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable work environment.

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The Editor

Ngozi Okeh is an experienced leader with a history of driving efforts to conceptualize, define, assess and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as strategic business processes. Ngozi is currently the Director of DEI at a leading marketing technology company where she develops and executes enterprise-wide DEI initiatives through rigorous strategic planning efforts, community partnerships, leadership collaboration, strategy evaluation, and careful management of communication and buy-in as well as policies and procedures.  Previously, she worked at an independent mortgage bank, where… View Profile