By Cliff Stevenson, Principal Analyst, Talent Management and Workforce Management, Brandon Hall Group

As part of my job (seriously!) I was recently reading about a training program for new hotel executives that uses virtual reality technology to give those executives the opportunity to virtually dust rooms, make beds and clean floors. Now admittedly, virtual vacuum cleaning has to be about the worst idea for a video game that I’ve ever heard of, but the purpose of this program wasn’t entertainment; it’s to help build understanding of all the jobs needed to keep hotel operations running smoothly — and even more so, to build empathy for the people doing those jobs.

Hotels are not the only ones taking a direct experiential approach to empathy-building. Carolinas Healthcare in Charlotte, NC realized it had a unique issue facing its workforce: the highest-salaried people on staff (surgeons) were often working with some of the lowest-paid employees (technicians and nursing assistants). This is not common in most industries, so to help facilitate a better understanding of economic hardship, Carolinas Healthcare had those surgeons take part in experiential learning practices such as eating lunch in low-income areas or having a very tight transportation budget for the work-week commute.

Both approaches are grounded in modern psychological research. Dr. Lara Maister at the Royal Holloway University of London conducted experiments, testing subjects for unconscious bias before placing them in virtual-reality scenarios where the subjects were members of another racial group. After that experience, subjects were tested again and scored higher (less bias) after the experiment. Apparently, being another type of person, even when you know it’s false, affects our attitudes in ways that no amount of conscious effort can.

These empathy-building exercises fall within the scope of diversity and inclusion efforts, but the idea of positively impacting unconscious biases has far-reaching effects, including more objective performance reviews, better hiring decisions, a wider choice of vendors and any internal or external interactions with people. As research and our own experience teach us, merely asking people to ignore their prejudices is ineffective.  Upcoming Brandon Hall Group research explores this further, with questions about unconscious bias, and experiential and virtual learning.

Hopefully, more organizations will have employees actually experience what it is like to be a different class, race or gender and see meaningful impacts on behavior. Let’s just hope we can all achieve that without having to push a virtual vacuum cleaner around a hotel room.

Cliff Stevenson, (Twitter: @CliffordDarrell) Principal Analyst, Talent Management and Workforce Management, Brandon Hall Group

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