What the F*** is Diversity Training Anyway?
Right Intent, Wrong Impact
My life’s purpose is to change the world by changing the workplace. Our work, where we work and what we do, is a significant part of our lives and we can’t afford to undervalue how much of ourselves we invest in it. We deserve to be free to be our whole selves at all times, yet we readily leave ourselves behind while we attempt to take a skeleton of ourselves into work each day. If we can create a more inclusive and accepting workplace, employees will take those habits home with them and create a more inclusive and accepting community, and those habits will continue to spread throughout the world.
I thought the best way to do this was to create a more in-depth diversity training than what we’re used to. To feel confident I knew how to do this in the best way, I started classes to earn my Certified Diversity Professional credentials. What did I learn, now that I’m certified? The key takeaway has been that diversity training is nonsense. It’s a bunch of generic corporate technicalities repeating elementary concepts that most anyone already knows so that management can check a box and feel like they’ve covered their asses should there be a legal complaint.
It turns out that diversity training not only fails to fulfill it’s purpose, it’s actually harmful! Peter Bregman of Psychology Today writes “Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice. It promotes it.” And there is more than enough research data showing this.
What Was I Taught to Teach?
Diversity training teaches people about the categories they are using to attempt to define others. We often feel uneasy when we don’t understand something. The intent is that if we know more about the categories, we’ll be less uncomfortable with our differences. The impact is that we reinforce the use of categories to define individuals.
On online business dictionary defines workforce diversity as “Similarities and differences among employees in terms of age, cultural background, physical abilities and disabilities, race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation.” When we name these social groups we’re implying that we’ve supplied an all inclusive list of differences.
Diversity training teaches people how to relate others to a major social group we identify with, or to see their similarities. The intent is to help participants feel like others are “normal” even with their differences. The impact is this teaches participants to view major social groups as “us” vs “them”, and reinforces the natural habit to view ourselves as the social norm.
This training often provides participants with lists of words and phrases that should be avoided because they may be offensive. The intent is to help them avoid offending others unintentionally. The impact is that participants will often believe that no one should be offended by anything not on the list.
One of the worst offenses of diversity training is that it is common practice to make the training mandatory. The intent is to have every employee learn the importance of diversity and to create a more inclusive environment. The impact is that this breeds negativity and even anger. It’s human nature to respond to coercion or control with resistance or hostility.
What Should We Do Instead?
We have a serious categorization problem. We automatically categorize everything we see so that we’re capable of processing the world around us. Unfortunately, we don’t stop doing this when it comes to people. It’s just fine and dandy to see a snake and put it in the “dangerous” category even though we don’t know that it’s actually venomous. However, when our brain puts people into categories it influences the ways we interact with them. And worse yet, the categories are often built on stereotypes that are perpetuated by television, movies, and media. We are at the mercy of functions of the human brain, and that brain wants you to make decisions about whether or not you hire someone based on a character in a movie you’ve seen.
Instead of teaching even more about these categories, let’s teach people how the brain functions, why it does these things, and how to identify when it’s happening so we can correct our thoughts and behaviors consciously. We spend so much time and money on teaching employees how to pretend they aren’t influenced by their unconscious expectations instead of teaching them how to navigate through them.
Let’s not teach people about specific social groups at all, and instead teach them about how social groups and social identity works. Helps participants understand the complexity of individuality and that we are the same in that none of us can be defined by any one group. We are each unique individuals with different thoughts, passions, skills, abilities, communication styles, motivators, etc. There is no standard human being.
We will never be able to provide anyone with an all inclusive list of everything that anyone anywhere could ever find offensive. Let’s not pretend that we can. Instead, let’s help people understand that, contrary to popular belief (because television), people are generally good and well intentioned. It is rare for someone we’re directly interacting with to willfully and maliciously say or do something offensive. If we can just get that out there now as an explicit, make this common knowledge, we can disarm a lot of the defensiveness can can come about from misunderstandings right out of the gate. Once we’re on the same page about that, it will be much easier for us to engage in a healthy conflict management process. Let’s teach every employee how to do this productively and stop these misunderstandings before they escalate.
Engaging in open and vulnerable conversations about our individuality and about the things we find offensive will absolutely make us uncomfortable, at first. We have a tendency to cringe at the word “uncomfortable” when referring to anything in the workplace. So much so that while I was taking the CDP (Certified Diversity Professional) courses, when I titled my mock training class I was creating “Having Uncomfortable Conversations”, I was told that was not an acceptable title because it would make people uncomfortable and no one would attend. We need to get over this issue we have with that word because “uncomfortable” is exactly what we need to get comfortable with. Anytime we encounter something we don’t understand or expect we will feel uncomfortable. It’s called cognitive dissonance, and it’s simply an indicator that we’re experiencing something new. We can grow to love this feeling, and if we care about personal growth or being innovative at all, that’s exactly what we’ll strive for.
Lastly, we cannot make this training mandatory. Human beings just don’t like being told what to do. We want to be ourselves, and we love our free will. It’s one thing to not have the benefit of learning a healthy way to communicate with others, it’s another entirely to be resentful about it. There’s good news and bad news about our unconscious expectations. The bad news is, we will always have them and we will always be influenced by them. But the good news is, we will always have them and we will always be influenced by them! What does this mean? If someone isn’t comfortable attending the training, it’s likely because it’s not what they expected to be offered or the communication being encouraged isn’t the style they expected. If they feel strongly enough about that to not attend the training, it’s because they are strongly influenced by their expectations. So, as other people are attending the training and they are exposed to the idea of the training existing and as they witness others engaging in the training, they will begin to expect it. And, as we just mentioned, they are strongly influenced by their expectations, therefore they’ll become comfortable with attending once they expect it. Never make it mandatory. Be patient and keep the training running because some people might be waiting until the last moment to volunteer.
Diversity training doesn’t work, yet it’s common practice. We keep trying to get more out of this reactive training, but what needs to change is the approach. We need to focus on building communication and conflict management skills, normalizing open and vulnerable communication, and encouraging expression and acceptance of individuality. It’s time we revolutionize the way we connect with one another in the workplace.