Can VR reduce workplace bias?

New VR platforms are designed to help employees understand bias firsthand

unconscious bias
  • Companies spend $8 billion annually on diversity training of dubious value
  • New VR-based training scenarios let users experience workplace bias firsthand
  • Similar VR tools can be used to assess candidates for job promotions

Your name is Sue. Taking a seat in the boardroom, you’re the only woman at the table. As your male colleagues debate a business proposal, you’ve got valuable feedback to share, but they interrupt and talk over you. Some don’t even make eye contact with you.

Sue isn’t a real person—she’s your avatar in a 10-minute virtual reality simulation designed to give managers and executives an immersive experience in workplace bias. When male execs remove their VR goggles after a session playing Sue, they’re often fuming, says Myra LalDin, CEO of Vectre, a startup that designs and facilitates VR-based diversity training.

“They say, ‘Wow, that was really infuriating, but it doesn’t actually happen here, right?’” LalDin says. Women who go through the same VR session, however, come out with a very different reaction. “They say, ‘Yes, I face that on a daily basis.’ It’s really powerful,” she adds.

Following years of hype around consumer VR applications, VR has recently emerged as an enterprise training tool. Ford, Verizon, and Walmart, for example, use VR to teach “hard” skills such as operating complex machinery.

‘We don’t tell you that you have an unconscious bias. We’re there to let you experience bias firsthand.’

Increasingly, companies are also turning to VR to help employees strengthen critical “soft” skills required for diversity and inclusivity training, such as empathy and social attunement, to ensure women and minority employees are heard and respected in the workplace.

Research shows that diversity is good for business. Companies with greater diversity in the C-suite perform better financially, according to McKinsey. But, like “Sue” and her virtual male counterpart, “Max,” women and minorities often find themselves ignored, overlooked, or passed up for promotions.

Based on initial feedback, VR training can change people’s perceptions more effectively than conventional techniques, says Mina Sipe, senior innovation consultant and VR scenario designer for leadership consulting firm DDI.

“Corporate diversity training programs have tended to focus only on awareness,” she says. “While many leaders understand diversity and inclusion at an intellectual level, they often fail to connect emotionally. With an emotional connection, people are far more committed to change.”

The science of empathy

Today, U.S. companies spend roughly $8 billion a year on diversity training, but there is scant evidence that it results in greater diversity or reduces bias, according to McKinsey.

Diversity training has been a feature of corporate life since the 1960s. Traditional training programs lean heavily on video instruction and role-playing exercises. Yet there’s little evidence that those approaches are effective.

In fact, they can sometimes cause more harm than good. For example, a 2016 study by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, published in Harvard Business Review, found that the positive effects of video instruction and role-playing seldom last more than one or two days, and can even activate bias in participants rather than reduce it.

The problem, LalDin says, is that telling employees they’re unconsciously biased puts them on the defensive. “From a neuroscience perspective, your brain automatically starts trying to defend itself and you don’t hear the content being presented,” she notes.

VR training takes a different tack. “We don’t tell you that you have an unconscious bias. We’re there to let you experience bias firsthand, being in somebody else’s shoes and getting to see the workplace from a different perspective,” says LalDin.

Vectre’s training is done in small groups (usually no more than 25 people) where participants share the same 10-minute VR experience, then join a follow-up discussion run by a facilitator.

VR holds potential as a training platform because it melds psychology with physiology. Because things look and sound real, your brain processes VR as a real experience, activating the same motor responses you would have when faced with stress, surprise, or anxiety.

“VR generates a feeling of ‘embodiment,’” says Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “That tends to evoke more emotion because learners are experiencing the struggles of another, not just watching them happen in a traditional video or role-play exercise.”

Feelings of empathy evoked by VR training can change behavior, Bailenson’s research shows. For example, after experiencing a VR simulation of cutting down an old-growth redwood—feeling the vibration of the chainsaw and the crash of the tree —people are more likely to conserve paper.

VR may also help people sustain empathy over time. Two months after virtually experiencing scenarios of homelessness (protecting one’s belongings from strangers on the street or seeking shelter on a bus), test subjects were more likely to donate, volunteer, and say that they cared “very much” about the plight of the homeless than those who interacted with a 2D simulation or read a narrative.

Top-down culture change

Today, most VR-based diversity training is aimed at managers and executives. Why? “Because that’s where change begins,” says LalDin. “They set the tone and the culture.”

Does it work? It’s still early days, but anecdotal and survey feedback has been positive, according to LalDin and Sipe. Both companies say they are implementing their programs with several Fortune 50 companies.

Other companies are exploring VR use cases beyond training. For example, Walmart uses VR to assess candidates for promotion to middle management positions. Employees tackle several VR scenarios, such as dealing with an angry customer and training a new employee, which puts their decision-making and leadership skills to the test.

By standardizing the assessment tool, the goal is to reduce bias in promotions. Since February 2018, 10,000 Walmart workers have donned Oculus headsets for the skills test. No one yet knows if virtual reality can help make workplaces more equitable, but many companies now have the opportunity to find out.