Updated: Jul 3, 2022
This is the first part of a series of essays. Read Part II here.
Many organisations assume that diversity training can boost productivity and innovation in an increasingly diverse work environment. The assumptions about the value of diversity training, as a result of its changing functions and uses, has evolved over the decades.
Employers have been trying to disrupt workplace discrimination with diversity training since the early 1960´s. I am yet to see any real or lasting impact following most diversity training programs. Unless organisations find a more effective way to tackle diversity, it will remain another box ticking exercise, with no demonstrable intention of remediation or improvement in sight.
Let's be clear, I am not a strong proponent of shameless PR - businesses using progressive-friendly values to deflect attention from their own monolithic pursuit of profit and power - or virtue signalling statements of support and commitments to change by businesses.
I critique the training as well intended albeit with little or lacklustre action that only serves to perpetuate the same inadequate efforts of the past.
Study after study has found that diversity training has little impact, resulting in more harm to the afflicted rather than alleviating those inequalities. It shouldn’t be surprising that most diversity programs aren’t increasing diversity. DEI’s explosive growth raises concerns, namely, how effective the programs are and whether or not the industry is here to stay in the long run.
Several diversity training initiatives have failed to achieve their goals. In fact, some of them end up damaging the reputation of the organisations that mandated them and can result in offended trainees claiming legal action against their employers.
Let’s dive deeper into the reasons why many diversity programs fail.
5 Reasons Diversity Training still gets it wrong
1. Lack of commitment from the top of the organisation is a sure way to fail at increasing diversity. Even if the CEO vocalises commitment but believes the organisation is a meritocracy, it’s quite likely that leadership will continue to look like the CEO; it is human nature to believe those with similar attributes to ourselves are the most creditable unless there is willingness to challenge one’s assumptions. And despite the unassailable business case that more gender and diversity of all kinds results in more profits, it is not likely that anyone in the currently largely white and male power structure is going to relinquish their power voluntarily.
2. Failure to change the culture to one where all feel they are valued. Let’s face it: it’s hard to change a culture while you are living in it. I’m not saying it’s easy. But the primary reason so many women bail out of the corporate world mid-career has much more to do with discomfort with the culture than with the prevailing assumptions that they leave for childbearing reasons. If the organisation's culture (systems, processes and policies) doesn’t support, or contradicts the training content, then it’s a waste of resources.
3. Making D&I training mandatory doesn't work on unwilling participants. We know that from professional education. We know that training doesn't work if you don't want to be there.
Studies show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out. As social scientists have found, people often rebel against rules to assert their autonomy. The dignity of the individual and the critical role of the individual is being responsible for their own life and their own choices in their own outcomes.
4. D&I training if not executed sensitively can exacerbate Othering – a broadly inclusive conceptual framework that captures expressions of prejudice and behaviours such as atavism and tribalism – which, quite aside from the question of learning, is precisely the opposite of the training's intention.
How are we expected to learn, contribute, appreciate, participate, and engage in society when it feels like we are increasingly policed by what we say or do? Isn’t growth achieved through curiosity, trial, and error?
The implications, other than worsening an already hostile work environment where people walk on eggshells, and nobody is willing to say anything because they're all afraid of being called racists or sexists or homophobes is fuelling othering.
5. Creating awareness but not moving to sustainable actions.
D&I training has to move from the WHAT to the HOW. Culture is built through everyday relationships that are created within a workplace during daily interactions. Companies need to implement continuous learning programs which create and sustain inclusive behaviours and actively work towards groups having a sense of belonging.
Companies that are serious about sustainable change will know that hearts and minds are influenced through daily inclusive micro-actions, role modelling appropriate behaviour, inclusive language and communications and creating environments of psychological safety to all stakeholders.
When diversity and inclusion initiatives are weak, one off tactical approaches without strategy or follow up and little depth, the result is some initial success followed by an immediate flat line or regression.
There simply has to be a better way!
Diversity training exists to help people understand how to create an environment where ALL employees feel supported and are able to grow, thrive and advance. I believe that diversity work in general (not just training) can work – but only if the focus is directed to operational changes such as leadership, organisational culture, systems and policies in place of bias training or virtue signalling.
Faith Kayiwa Nababi is a Leadership Consultant and Intercultural Coach at Tailormade Consultancy, a global service agency that empowers executives to make the best strategic decisions; create value and purpose for the people they lead; and catalyse conscious change.