LLast summer, when people started marching for racial justice around the world, companies had their own internal racial calculations. Brands began lining up to demonstrate their anti-racist credentials. Employees, encouraged for the moment, began airing their companies’ dirty laundry in public. Commitments to diversity were made; tweets were sent; promises to do your best abounded; goals and objectives were established.
And the numbers skyrocketed. Enrollment in the Yale University Diversity Training Program increased three times by September 2020. And although in the first months of the pandemic, job openings related to diversity and equality (such as diversity officers and recruiters) plummeted by 60%, the effect was almost completely reversed a month after the protests.
Today, the Diversity Equity Inclusion (DEI) business sector is booming, raising $ 8 billion a year – but has it translated into results?
You can’t train to ward off bias
For starters, a guiding principle of most diversity training, that if you make people aware of their biases, they can learn to repress them, appears to be flawed.
“There is fairly broad agreement that bias cannot be removed. Prejudices are mostly subconscious, and exposure to training can sometimes activate them rather than help suppress them, ”says Dr. Frank Dobbin, a professor of social science at Harvard.
Dobbin has been studying diversity training for years, joining a host of other scholars who have written over a thousand articles, proving that most training just doesn’t work. Whether in the field observing companies receiving training or in the lab, their research shows that companies that use anti-bias training rarely see improvements in their workforce diversity afterward and that even when the training has a positive effect, usually quickly forgotten. Sometimes it can even have the opposite effect as desired.
“Much of our research shows that training makes the dominant group, usually white men, feel threatened and fear being left out. They fight instead of internalizing [the training]”Says Alexandra Kalev, a social studies professor at Princeton.
So why do companies keep signing up? Dobbin believes that it is usually a knee-jerk reaction, either to something that has happened within the company, such as racist behavior by an employee that attracts widespread attention, or something in the broader setting, such as the protests last summer. The company can put details about the training on its website, post a public relations statement, and end it.
“The easy thing to do is have everyone receive diversity training. Because the bottom line from that is: ‘There is nothing wrong with our systems. There is nothing wrong with our values, it turns out that we have hired some dishonest employees who act on their prejudices, and we are going to train them to eliminate them, ‘”explains Dobbin.
“That is easier. And while it is expensive, it is cheaper than the hard work of closely observing how the company hires. “
The counterproductive effect
“To be less white is to be less oppressive, less arrogant, less confident,” a set of slides at a Coca-Cola diversity workout last month read. The course had been accessed on LinkedIn Education, which subsequently pulled the material from its library.
The “whistleblower” who leaked the slides calls herself an “unawakened activist” and is a strong advocate of the prohibition of critical race theory, so perhaps her resistance was to be expected. But if anti-racism training only speaks to converts, can it really achieve its goals?
“It may not be fair that you can’t start this process by getting people to admit that they are biased. But people don’t want to think that they are biased. And we just don’t see any evidence that it ever worked, ”says Dobbin.
Managers feel that they are blamed for systems that produce inequality and employment outcomes, that they do not believe they are their fault, and jargon can be alienating.
“It’s very difficult to talk about white privilege when you don’t know you have it,” says Kalev, referring to the trend of new anti-bias training to include technical sociological terms. – as in the aforementioned training at Coca-Cola, which used phrases from Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility.
Bad results include creating suspicions that new hires are less competent because trainers focus on talking about “diversity” rather than talent or excellence, or that people walk away thinking there is nothing they can do about racism in work place.
“In many cases, coaches don’t want to sound like they’re pointing fingers. Therefore, you may observe them speaking in the form of “we”, and the trainer will give examples of their own biases. That has the paradoxical effect: people think ‘this is normal, so I don’t need to change it,’ ”he explains.
Even with the best diversity training possible, nothing will be accomplished without changing the existing structures that perpetuate discrimination. “Racism at work is ingrained at all levels of the business. It’s hardly about managers with individual biases, ”explains Kalev.
“Even with the best training in the world, if the company continues to recruit from predominantly white elite universities, and they continue to rely on spontaneous mentoring to succeed, how can training make a difference?” Kalev asks.
The good news is that fair hiring doesn’t require a radical shakeup, a lot of cash, or big initiatives. There are some simple and well-founded interventions that work.
Training should be voluntary, so that employees do not feel heavily armed and developed internally, so that it responds to the specific needs of the organization. You shouldn’t focus on negative consequences, particularly legal repercussions for the company, or employees tend to see it as a cover-up.
Companies can start by looking at the data: on hiring, promotion and firing trends, by job type, over the past decades. “Create workgroups to look at certain areas of the business, who can provide feedback on the results and see what the bottlenecks are,” explains Dobbin.
Once that information is found, tried and true methods can make a difference. Having a system in which managers train people to move up through the ranks, rather than relying on an ad-hoc promotion system, works well, especially for women. Putting in “special recruiting structures,” which basically means that you no longer exclusively recruit at historically white colleges, but also approach historically black colleges or engineering programs with lots of women in them, works well, too.
Mentoring programs that are open to all, for women and people of color to get mentors even if they are at the lowest levels of a company, are also a good way to ensure that talent can grow.
“We know what kind of systemic changes promote diversity. Pointing the finger of blame at managers and trying to adjust their individual bias just doesn’t work. So to me, it’s just crazy that companies keep doing these things, ”explains Dobbin.
So is diversity training just a moneymaker, I ask Kalev?
“Most of the diversity training doesn’t work. Most of it is not free. So you can do 1 + 1, ”she says.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism