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Why Diversity and Inclusion Training May Backfire

Updated: Jul 5

Although diversity, equity and inclusion programs are generally well intentioned and considered "the right thing to do," they have been coming under increased scrutiny. Many academics and management experts question whether the initiatives can deliver on their promises for a fairer and more productive workplace. They wonder whether there are more effective ways to address employees' biases than by corralling them in occasional workshops.

a diverse team of 4 people sitting in a circle in front of a white board

DEI training makes consultants rich

Organizations have signed up DEI training consultants like FIC Human Resource Partners' Nuance Workforce Solutions and Nuance Culture Academy in droves. According to McKinsey, U.S. firms spend about $8 billion annually on what has become a lucrative industry, as about 80% of organizations make some form of training mandatory. Often, these sessions are a one-shot deal, making little to no impact on real change.

The programs initially gained traction as a low-cost initiative with legal and public relations payoffs. Management may look to the socially responsible optics and potential legal protection they hope to obtain. Sometimes the programs are instituted as a knee-jerk reaction to internal or external events or as a form of damage control, such as to counteract some employees' poor behavior or for much wider trends like protests against racial bias. DEI efforts also serve as a litigation shield. Companies at risk for lawsuits have noted that some judges may respond positively to seeing DEI programs in place.

Training can also be less expensive than thoroughly cleaning house. It is a relatively straightforward exercise for employers to describe corporate diversity initiatives, such as training, along with public relations materials and mission statements on their website. It is certainly less time-consuming and less expensive than taking a deep dive into recruiting and other more far-reaching practices across the organization.

The best-laid plans of mice and men

Why is DEI training ineffective? Antibias exercises are founded on the premise that if people are made aware of their subconscious biases, they will be better able to control or suppress them. Yet to the extent those prejudices are in fact subliminal, a forced focus on DEI can even activate them and encourage more stereotyping.

Another limitation of training is that daylong sessions are not likely to change the behavior and habits of a lifetime. There is not enough time to build skills or formulate action plans. Longer workshops and gatherings might result in some action; however, their impact tends to fade after a few days. Do not assume one size fits all, either. Each organization is unique in its demographics, operational functions and levels of collaboration.

Blaming and shaming only compound resistance. Nobody, managers included, likes to be strong-armed. Is attendance voluntary, or do employees have to show up? Employees are more inclined to react with animosity and irritation if they feel the training is being forced on them in a remedial context.

Managers also sabotage initiatives by assigning DEI activities to consultants rather than embracing the initiatives and participating themselves. When diversity is foisted off on outsiders who turn up for brief appearances, it sends the message that DEI may just be nice to have as opposed to a business-critical imperative. Employees pay lip service and move on. And just appointing a chief DEI officer is a far cry from establishing a firmwide culture, which aligns its systems, processes, norms and policies with a sincere diversity effort.

Outcomes speak louder than intentions

A few guidelines can help make DEI training more successful, including:

  • Making it voluntary, not obligatory.

  • Training employees to ascend through the ranks instead of ad hoc promotions.

  • Creating exposure and familiarity to lessen bias — use mentoring and department rotations.

  • Avoid leaning overly on marginalized individuals as champions — they may be uncomfortable in the role.

  • Not limiting initiatives to only certain demographics.

It is commendable to aim high, but try not to set unrealistic expectations. Employees like to witness concrete results before they are ready to fully buy in.

FIC Human Resource Partners' Nuance Workforce Solutions and Nuance Culture Academy can support your organization's DEI initiatives and help you determine the best training programs to achieve the culture your employees deserve.

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