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February 22, 2018

When Diversity Training Is a Waste of Time and Employers’ Money

I may be the only diversity trainer who is often anti-diversity training. It’s not because I don’t enjoy what I do. It’s not because I’m no good at it.

It’s because half the leaders who contact me for diversity training don’t need it. Thousands of dollars and dozens of hours are wasted every year on diversity training that has little impact — or makes things worse — because leaders make one of the following four mistakes.

  • You’re having a knee-jerk reaction to one or two people’s concerns. A nonprofit CEO contacted me for staff-wide training at the behest of her board because a person of color in a leadership position “made comments.” There was no evidence of other diversity-related problems and she was unwilling to elaborate on the comments (a problem in itself). As sexual harassment and overt white supremacy gain broader visibility, knee-jerk reactions fueled by heightened anxiety are understandable. But while feedback, especially from members of underrepresented groups, should always be taken seriously, taking them seriously doesn’t always mean all-staff training is the next step.
    • Instead: Engage in meaningful conversation with those raising concerns to identify wider patterns and get at the root of the problem. The root may be one manager’s leadership skills, or a flaw in systems or procedures. In such cases better accountability, clearer communication, leadership coaching or process change are the appropriate solution, not training.
  • You lack meaningful goals for training (or D&I in general). A corporate HR leader requested unconscious bias training to help the firm recruit and retain more people of color. Some stakeholders felt training was long overdue, while others saw no need and resisted efforts. After three years their diversity council had produced no strategic plan or D&I goals. Simply aiming to recruit and retain “diverse people” is an “old school” approach to D&I that doesn’t work, especially when buy-in is low among key stakeholders. Trainers are limited in their ability to create staff buy-in; this must come from leadership.
    • Instead: Identify your strategic, mission-critical goals for D&I. Diversity is not a strategic goal, it’s a strategic means to an important end the organization already cares deeply about. Having strategic D&I goals enables leaders to identify the barriers to achieving them. Identifying the barriers equips leaders to break them down effectively and efficiently — and may not require staff training. Also, defining why recruiting and retaining more people of color (or whatever the goal) is necessary to organizational success creates buy-in for training — when the time is right. Read the rest on Workforce!

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