On Diversity Training

Diversity training has recently become a topic of conversation again, mainly because a Harvard Business Review published, “Why Diversity Programs Fail“. I have my own thoughts on diversity programs as an INTJ third culture kid and as a multicultural.

Here’s a good quote from the above-mentioned article (emphasis mine):

…Despite a few new bells and whistles, courtesy of big data, companies are basically doubling down on the same approaches they’ve used since the 1960s—which often make things worse, not better. Firms have long relied on diversity training to reduce bias on the job, hiring tests and performance ratings to limit it in recruitment and promotions, and grievance systems to give employees a way to challenge managers. Those tools are designed to preempt lawsuits by policing managers’ thoughts and actions. Yet laboratory studies show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out…

The article pretty much lays out the reasons for diversity training – avoidance of lawsuits – and the problems with it.

I remember the first time I suffered a formal diversity training was at Honeywell. A woman of European descent was telling us about how important diversity was, but kept dancing along the legal talking points and therefore wasn’t talking too much about diversity at all.

I chuckled through most of it because it was pretty dumb and was focusing on the differences – not the commonalities. As someone who had to forge his own identity instead of having one handed to him, this all seemed ludicrous to me. And, as usual in the United States, diversity was a black and white issue. Being a shade of brown, it was at times painful to watch since it did seem to create a bias when there wasn’t one.

To say that people don’t get promoted because they aren’t someone that their boss more easily relates to – I call it ‘one of us’ syndrome – is false. As much as a lot of us hate the suck-ups, we know that they get promoted by pretending to be like the boss. When you’re a different culture, that’s harder to do. When you’re a different color, it’s even more difficult. My response has been simply not to suck up, which is why I’m probably not a CTO somewhere now, but I’m perfectly OK with that.

Fast forward 20 years, and while at a non-profit that dealt with bipolar issues, I went through even more diversity training that went completely sideways. In their case, they were trying to deal with the accusation that they were a ‘white’ organization, so I heard a lot about ‘white privilege’ from our Afro-American facilitator. It went completely sideways; the hispanic woman and the two brown guys (I was one of them) were suddenly trying to keep everyone together. We kind of did that, sort of. It was messy.

And with those two as the extremes I’ve seen over the years – the rest were vanilla and boring – I’ve come to some conclusions about diversity training:

  • It doesn’t actually work. In fact, when you have a brown person in a room surrounded by those without pigmentation, that person pretty much feels singled out as the example. Some argue that this demonstrates why it is needed. It’s a self-serving argument; if you hire good people based on merit then you simply get what you get.
  • It becomes a glib talking point for the people who don’t understand diversity: They’ll talk about the pains of having to be politically correct and roll their eyes as they word their emails. In this way, diversity training reinforces the problem.
  • The people who feel singled out may either be apologetic or feel empowered, but neither is a proper outcome in a diverse environment. In fact, they may even feel more sensitive than they did before.
  • The business need for less legal costs (which is really what this is about) never had a great metric to start with, so tangible results are impossible. “We get sued less often” might be true, but it might not, and it has no bearing on the future.

Diversity is messy. It cannot be taught by training. Diversity requires empathy, not sympathy, and it requires people to have a world view beyond their own identity. As a TCK multicultural, I don’t understand why this is such a big issue from my own experience, but it is a big issue for people.

And at the end of all of this – you don’t have to like people that you work with and you don’t have to be liked. You don’t have to have dinner with coworkers, you don’t have to sleep with them (HR might have something to say about that). What you have to do is respect people based on merits, and I’m boggled myself by the fact – and it is a fact –  that even people who speak highly of meritocracy themselves are poor at practicing it.

In the end, there’s only one way to allow for diversity – that’s what it is, it’s an allowance – and that is to build on commonalities. If it didn’t happen during the formative years, it’s unlikely that it will happen afterwards – no matter how much money you spend on the problem.