If you work in a corporate environment, at some point you’ve been forced to endure a mandatory diversity training class. They’re inescapable at this point. Why does the diversity training industry even exist? Well, basically, it’s because in the 90s and 00s there were a ton of discrimination lawsuits that swept over Wall Street and companies such as Merrill Lynch ended up paying more than $500 million in class action settlements. So in order to preempt lawsuits and create a more inclusive working environment, diversity training was introduced and “diversity” became an entire industry in itself. Now they are practically ubiquitous, even in some of the most so-called progressive institutions like universities and media companies.
Can you really train people to be more accepting of diversity after making them sit through a 2-hour or one day seminar? No. Come on now. Let’s be realistic. It’s way too conceptual. Simply outlawing bias doesn’t make it go away. First of all, I really dislike the word, “diversity” because it still centers everything around whiteness. Let’s call it what it is: reality. Second, the diversity training industry was created to teach white people how to behave around minorities. I find it completely ridiculous. I also find it ridiculous that minorities are often required to attend these trainings. Most of us have just learned how to deal with white people all of our lives because they’re everywhere around us.
“Do people who undergo training usually shed their biases?” write Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev in the Harvard Business Review article, Why Diversity Programs Fail. “Researchers have been examining that question since before World War II, in nearly a thousand studies. It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a question about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest it can activate bias or spark a backlash. Nonetheless, nearly half of midsize companies use it, as do nearly all the Fortune 500.” (Harvard Business Review)
“A study of 829 companies over 31 years showed that diversity training had “no positive effects in the average workplace.” Millions of dollars a year were spent on the training resulting in, well, nothing. Attitudes — and the diversity of the organizations — remained the same. It gets worse. The researchers — Frank Dobbin of Harvard, Alexandra Kalev of Berkeley, and Erin Kelly of the University of Minnesota — concluded that “In firms where training is mandatory or emphasizes the threat of lawsuits, training actually has negative effects on management diversity.” (Diversity Training Doesn’t Work, Harvard Business Review)
The problem is that diversity training these days is dressed in the language of betterment and in that sense, it’s disingenuous. If you’re going to speak about diversity as a catchall, it really has to be about equality, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. The language of diversity training obscures the pursuit of those things. When you talk about something like diversity, it has to come from a sincere place. Diversity training seminars and professionals fall short of any honest talk about race, acceptance and the actual pain that people have endured due to discrimination. This is so coddling of white people. It’s all meant to continue to protect the white identity. Just be blunt in front of white people about the realities of race. It’s the only way to be real about it and make any difference. I would love it if diversity professionals said the ugly truth in plain language and got people completely out of their comfort zones.
The other major problem is that discussing race and gender in the office is supposed to be a taboo subject. But that has produced really negative results. There are psychological research studies that show that the worst thing you can do is never talk about race or gender in the workplace. Remove the taboo. That taboo only exists because white people are too uncomfortable to talk about race, which leads to them being clueless about how to talk about it and the cycle just continues.
One more problem with diversity training seminars is this: In my experience, the classes have been so cheesy that they get made fun of by the attendees. How can anyone take it seriously when you’ve been presented with these outrageous scenarios and a 1980s era VHS tape about sexual harassment? It just leads to the strengthening of attitudes about bias rather than changing them.
Can the diversity training industry change? Absolutely. Right now it’s completely outdated and ignores what’s really needed in the current culture. Real interaction among individuals. Removing the taboo of discussing bias and race in the workplace. I think some of the best solutions have been designed without diversity in mind at all: mentoring programs, self-managed teams, and task forces.