Settling for Hope Over Committment

Is DEI Training Doing More Harm than Good?

This op-ed piece by Jesse Singal in The New York Times appeared today and before I had even read it, we had received five different emails, texts, or prompts, asking us what we thought about it. 

The piece posits that there is little evidence to show that diversity training – which reached its zenith in 2020 and 2021 in terms of dollars spent and employee requests for training – has any positive long-term effects. The piece also posits that some diversity initiatives worsen what Mr. Singal calls the “DEI climates“ of the organizations that sponsor them. 

Mr. Singal’s treatment of the topic and the citations he used are decidedly one-sided. In today’s “one and done” information environment it’s concerning that some may take his opinion as fact instead of as one perspective. Suffice it to say, organizations like Catalyst, COQUAL, and others conducted studies illustrating how DEI training has substantively contributed to positive gains for individuals and their organizations. 

Instead of taking issue with Mr. Singal’s assertions and claims about the effectiveness of DEI training now and then, or splitting hairs about what he means when he writes “positive long-term effects,” let\=’s talk about what we can learn from the piece in service of our work.

In general, I agree with one of Mr. Singal’s primary points –  if organizations want to generate ROI through a DEI&B strategy, training alone won’t work. Also, training that focuses on hearts and minds at the expense of behaviors and actions won’t change results quickly enough to make the grade in today’s impatient, profit-over-process, corporate environment. ©

Most DEI&B practitioners agree that organizations have to focus on changing processes and practices related to DEI&B in tandem with employee development and learning to achieve lasting results. But the reality is, it’s faster and strategically more practical to conduct an emotionally impactful – even transformative – learning event than it is to shift process and practice. 

The DEI managers I know report that it is easier to secure funding or support for training than for the complicated work of shifting culture. One is an event, the other is a process best measured over years or decades vs. months. Plus offering training might be rationalized as a reasonable alternative (or distraction) from the real issues. It is in scenarios like these where all too often, we diversity practitioners settle for hope instead of commitment.

But in the Spring of 2020 employees didn’t want to merely sit at their desks – alone and in their socially isolated homes – and work on changes in policies or practices. Amidst a backdrop of angst and images of worldwide civil rights protests, some wanted to talk about the years of suppressed daily lived experience of discrimination, hate, and bias at work they have been quietly living with. Hearing these stories, others wanted to better understand why they had missed seeing what their colleagues were going through. And, still others – craving the “good old days” – questioned the premise or need for the entire exercise. 

So what can we do to ensure diversity training makes a positive difference?

  1. First and foremost – and hopefully this is obvious – conduct training events in tandem with activities that implement well-thought-out changes in policy and practice. For example, pair up internal customer satisfaction initiatives with a learning experience on intercultural competency to increase listening and empathy with customers from other geographies or cultures.
  2. Hold managers accountable for applying the terms, concepts, and habits that foster inclusion. Include measuring how well they create and lead a diverse team, including their ability to attract and retain great people. 
  3. Resist the urge to prescribe processes and practices in a “top-down” way unless absolutely necessary.  Better to co-create activities and organizational practices that help everyone feel like they belong. One way to do that is to facilitate sessions where managers and specialists such as HR leads work to create the desired processes and practices, together. Research shows that managers and leaders do a better job of supporting or enforcing something they helped to create, so involve them in the creation phase. In general, train less – co-create more.
  4. To the degree that it is possible, eliminate compulsory DE&I training,  Getting people to see that which is right in front of them but might be invisible is hard enough, doing that with people who have a chip on their shoulders because they felt threatened into attending isn’t very inclusive. If you have no choice but to make DEI training compulsory make sure that whatever training you offer stays away from anything that takes a blaming or shaming tone.
  5. Ensure every training event is conducted with respect and openness. Beware of training that attempts to change people’s behaviors through guilt, embarrassment, or shame. Psychologists proved a long time ago that, over the long term,  these tactics do more harm than good.  
  6. Conversely, if someone is starting to feel or see something that has been invisible to them their entire lives, feelings of discomfort and “cognitive dissonance” may be normal. Acknowledge those feelings when they arise and offer reassurance. As someone once said, “the truth shall set you free, but first, it might make you miserable.”
  7. And, finally, if you are  of another marginalized group, be ready for dominant group members – white men and women in the US and men in general around the world – to feel a disproportionate amount of discomfort, angst, and disagreement in DEI&B learning. This isn’t intentional but it is also not unusual. Dominant group members routinely see and feel the impact of discrimination less often than their colleagues from underrepresented or marginalized colleagues. Give them time, and empathize with how hard it is to feel new emotions while they learn to empathize with what it has been like for you to carry a lifetime of harm and insult with you.

     

Framing issues in “more harm than good” binary terms makes for great headlines but is counter to progress. Embedding DEI in organizations is an imprecise process that ultimately and inexorably shifts organizational culture in virtuous and sometimes subtle ways. Let’s keep finding ways to make it better.

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