Facebook’s Anti-bias Training is Interesting, Amusing… and Quite Dangerous

Facebook (Thumbs Down)

You can tell me that bias exists in the workplace, that my co-workers have biases, that I myself have biases, and that we as a company… nay… we as a nation must do more to combat workplace biases in order to create the inclusive, representative organizations that we need, and I’ll believe you.

Just don’t tell me this stuff for an hour. Even this training-loving, left-leaning, rule-following do-gooder will tune out after 10 minutes. 

On Monday I wrote about the need for learning and development professionals to find ways to connect with their audience in order to help their audience buy in to something they otherwise didn’t necessarily think they needed to learn. Facebook’s recently-shared anti-bias program has so much potential to do just that… but it really seems to fall short. In my opinion, when something as important as anti-bias training falls short, it can do more harm than good.

I don’t work at Facebook and I haven’t experienced the full training, so the following observations about this high profile program are based solely on the videos (check them out here) Facebook has released “to help other companies” as well as several articles (such as HBR’s “What Facebook’s Anti-bias Training Program Gets Right”) describing the program.

Here are some design elements that I truly appreciate about the program that Facebook has released for public consumption:

  1. Executive Sponsorship: The program is kicked off by Lori Goler, Facebook’s VP of People. An executive offering introductory comments about why this is important at all levels of the organization lends a level of gravitas that regular trainers could never produce on their own.
  2. Two Facilitators: From a learner perspective, two facilitators offer a way to change things up. From a facilitator perspective, it helps keep the facilitators fresh and offers an opportunity to observe the reactions of the learners.
  3. Specific Examples: Throughout the hour of videos, the facilitators weave personal examples of biases into the data they share from Facebook employees and society at large.
  4. Pair-Share (even in a large group setting!): Early on, Mike Rognlien asks audience members to turn to someone near them to share a thought. Early on, this appeared to be more than simply a tag-team lecture. The audience was asked to take an active role in the learning!

Here’s what I didn’t like about the program:

  1. Choice of Executive Sponsor: Of course the head HR person likes this program… but what about other executives? Is this just another HR initiative? Or can this really have an impact on operations? R&D? Marketing? Other areas?
  2. That’s it? Just one pair-share? Maybe there were two or three… maybe even more that were edited out of the video. The program, however, seemed to be filled with passive learning. I won’t spend too much time here because in several articles I read, the complete anti-bias program includes “case studies, workshop sessions and presentations”. But I’m skeptical.
  3. The Epic Decline of Visual Aids: In the beginning, there were several clean slides presented by the facilitators. As the video progressed, the slides became more and more filled with data and bullet points. The call to action slide called for a lot of action. Hopefully supervisors are up for the challenge of reinforcing many bullet points’ worth of action steps since there was no way in the world attendees would ever be able to remember all of the information presented in those slides.

Here’s why I think this program is dangerous:

In short, this program is dangerous because it’s too nice. It’s too neat. It’s too sanitary. It provides false hope that this program will lead to results, and that nothing more needs to be done.

Reducing or eliminating bias is messy work that won’t be resolved through an hour’s worth of studies and data confirming that biases exist. That information may be heart breaking, but it primarily speaks to the learners’ heads.

Training can play an important role in fighting bias in many forms – racism, sexism to name a few – but it has to not only speak to the mind, but it must also shout to the heart. Individual learners need to understand their role in societal biases, beginning by understanding and acknowledging their privilege. Peggy McIntosh’s famous white privilege checklist was developed in 1989 yet so many of my white colleagues still see this for the first time and dismiss it as a socio-economic problem (until they compare their checklist results with their colleagues, particularly people of color).

Facebook’s training is interesting because it’s a high profile example of anti-bias training in an industry that desperately needs to be more inclusive. The media attention it has garnered since its public release has started a conversation, which is important.

The fact that it does so little to grab the learners by the heart, challenge them to explore the roots of these biases in their own personal lives and invite them into deeper exploration seems to be a major shortcoming.

Graduates of the program may feel empowered with the new knowledge and awareness they need to combat bias in the workplace, but sometimes results need more than just knowledge and awareness. Sometimes training needs to get messier in order to clean up past injustices.

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