“We’ve got another lawsuit,” my friend and client Lana* told me over the phone.
“Really?” I was honestly surprised. “What about all that diversity training everyone went through?”
“Well, apparently we need to do it again.”
Lana was the head of Human Resources for Bedia, a company in the media industry that felt, at times, like an old boy’s network. Diversity wasn’t just a professional issue for her; she cared about it personally.
Over the years, there had been a number of incidents at Bedia in which individuals had felt misunderstood, mistreated, or disrespected. Eventually, someone sued.
In the most recent situation, someone used a word in a letter that felt derogatory to a number of African Americans. Before that, someone sent a sexist joke around the office and a female co-worker was offended. There were other incidents too.
Bedia had tried to address the issue in a diversity training that carefully outlined what people were allowed to say, and what they weren’t.
They also tried diversity training that brought groups of people into a room and asked them to separate into categories. Some of the categories were more self-evident like gender, age, and ethnicity. Other categories were more subtle, like experiences they’d had, likes and dislikes, and beliefs. Each group was asked to share a little about how they saw themselves as an attempt to educate the others.
Still, the problem persisted. The organization was tense and the CEO worried that, eventually, Bedia would end up in another lawsuit.
He was right.
That’s when Lana called me. Would I do diversity training?
There are two reasons to do diversity training. One is to prevent lawsuits. The other is to create an inclusive environment in which each member of the community is valued, respected, and can fully contribute their talents. That includes reducing bias and increasing the diversity of the employee and management population.
Lana made it clear to me that Bedia was interested in the second reason, not just the first, and I agreed to investigate.
But after speaking with a number of people in the organization, it confirmed a feeling that had been pestering me for years:
Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice. It promotes it.
At first glance, the first training — the one that outlined what people could and couldn’t say — didn’t seem to hurt. But on further inspection, it turns out it did.
The scenarios quickly became the butt of participant jokes. And, while the information was sound, it gave people a false sense of confidence since it couldn’t possibly cover every single situation.
The second training — the one that categorized people — was worse. Just like the first training, it was ridiculed, ironically in ways that clearly violated the recommendations from the first training. And rather than changing attitudes of prejudice and bias, it solidified them.
This organization’s experience is not an exception. It’s the norm.
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.”
Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, actually. Anybody who has ever been scolded is familiar with the tendency to rebel against the scolding.
But it’s deeper than that. When people divide into categories to illustrate the idea of diversity, it reinforces the idea of the categories.
Which, if you think about it, is the essential problem of prejudice in the first place. People aren’t prejudiced against real people; they’re prejudiced against categories. “Sure, John is gay,” they’ll say, “but he’s not like other gays.” Their problem isn’t with John, but with gay people in general.
Categories are dehumanizing. They simplify the complexity of a human being. So focusing people on the categories increases their prejudice.
The solution? Instead of seeing people as categories, we need to see people as people. Stop training people to be more accepting of diversity. It’s too conceptual, and it doesn’t work.
Instead, train them to do their work with a diverse set of individuals. Not categories of people. People.
Teach them how to have difficult conversations with a range of individuals. Teach them how to manage the variety of employees who report to them. Teach them how to develop the skills of their various employees.
And, while teaching them that, help them resist the urge to think about someone as a gay person, a white man, a black woman, or an Indian. Also help them to resist the urge to think about someone as “just like me” — that’s a mistake too.
Move beyond similarity and diversity to individuality. Help them see John, not as a gay white man, but as John. Yes, John may be gay and white and a man. But he’s so much more than that.
Don’t reinforce his labels, which only serve to stereotype him. Reveal his singularity. Don’t ask: What are the dreams of a gay white man. Ask: What are John’s dreams? What does he hate? What are his passions?
The antidote to the ineffectiveness of diversity training is the opposite of diversity training. If you want diversity, think about an individual, then another, then another.
“Please,” I said to Lana, “Don’t do diversity training again. It will only make things worse.”
“Then what should we do?” she asked.
We decided to put all managers through communication training. It still fulfilled the requirement of the lawsuit. But it did something more. People learned to listen and speak with each other — no matter the difference — which is the key to creating a vibrant and inclusive environment.
As it turns out, it’s also the key to preventing lawsuits. The communication trainings I led for Bedia were ten years ago and they haven’t been sued since.
*Names and some details changed.