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In my lifetime, I’ve seen my native Los Angeles burn twice due to civil unrest caused by racism. In Spring 1992 I was taking my final exams at UCLA and preparing for my new job as a social worker in the very neighborhoods that smoldered. In Spring 2020 I’ve received a record number of inquiries from organizational leaders wanting help to respond to the outcry in the streets and among their employees. Many ask for training.

I’m having déjà vu, and I see leaders poised to make the same old mistakes.

As a 25-year veteran of the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) field, I tell leaders this ugly truth: diversity training doesn’t work. Unconscious bias training doesn’t work. Companies spend millions of dollars on expensive consultants and sexy programs every year with great fanfare and see zero change. Zero. I know, because for years, I was one of those expensive consultants.

It is true that some come away from such training with new, life-changing awareness, and even some skills. I know that, too, because I’ve been on both the receiving and giving end of such breakthroughs. However, the ROI of such programs is low-to-nil (if it was even calculated), and the changes too small and unsustainable.

Despite billions of dollars invested by organizations in diversity programs over three decades, representation of women and people of color in organizations and leadership positions has increased minimally, and in many cases is flat or declining. Employee engagement and overall work satisfaction is dismal. And up to 75% of underrepresented employees don’t feel they’ve personally benefited from their companies’ DEI programs. Furthermore, COVID-19 and civil unrest are uncovering how fragile our systems are — and how little progress has been made to create a world that works well for everyone.

10 Reasons Why Diversity and Bias Training Programs Don’t Work

  1. Insufficient assessment was conducted prior to training to identify an organization’s current state, desired state, and the most effective ways to close the gap.
  2. Training is designed and implemented without a clear understanding of the specific problem (the gap that needs closing).
  3. The specific problem can’t be solved by increasing individuals’ awareness or knowledge (which is all that training can provide).
  4. Training provides no skill-building or clear action plans for next steps.
  5. The organization provides no hardwired, ongoing opportunities to practice learning after training.
  6. There is no accountability for training action plans, or unrealistic expectations.
  7. The organization’s culture doesn’t support, or contradicts, the training content.
  8. The broader culture outside the workplace contradicts or undermines the training content.
  9. The organization has systems, processes, policies, and norms that undermine the training content, or are the true source of the problem.
  10. The organization has poor or ineffective leadership.

No savvy patient would go to the doctor, ask for a particular drug, and expect that doctor to simply write them a prescription. And no ethical, well-trained physician would write a prescription without taking a patient’s thorough medical history and running lab tests.

However, many well-intended leaders go to diversity consultants asking for training and expect to simply receive it without any diagnosis of the core issues the organization thinks training will solve. And many diversity consultants provide training and advice without first conducting a thorough diagnosis.

Similarly, no savvy consumer would ask their accountant or hairdresser for medical advice. Accountants and hairdressers have essential expertise, but not medical expertise. However, many leaders ask their employees, talent acquisition staff, learning and development professionals, or other leaders for advice on DEI — but usually those professionals don’t possess that expertise!

So what happens is that smart, good people hire diversity consultants and training firms with good intentions. Then they see little to no change — or end up worse than they started — and conclude that diversity work in general (not just training) doesn’t work. Meanwhile, employees grow in their frustration and resistance, and sometimes cities burn. Again. Keep reading on to learn the 5 Ways to do DEI right!

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