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.

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The Reason Why Your Tech Employees Are Leaving

SH-dinky-I-quitThere’s a bazillion articles out there on employee retention the last time I stopped counting. Tech employees are slightly different. Without further ado:

1: They’re Unhappy.

Tada. This is why people leave.

Tech folk are a bit like cats, and herding cats is not an easy task. People want different things. If you don’t know what the individuals want, you’ve already identified your first problem.

You can’t and should not please everyone.

You might be amazed at how easy it is to retain employees if you simply listen and react appropriately – and bear in mind that the rest of the team is paying attention and taking note.

1a: Hot And Cold

If there is no respite, if it’s a matter of going from one thing to another, running hot on projects behind schedules and cold on new things, you’re encountering basic physics. Constant expansion and contraction is not good for anything, particularly people. The larger the gradient between hot and cold, the more likely you’re going to lose people. This is part and parcel of a Culture of Fear.

1b: Unfair Treatment

You might like to think that you’re treating everyone equally, but your team might see it otherwise. If one person throws a tantrum and gets what they want – be it a supply of Coke products or an office – expect the rest of the team to either learn the lesson or begin disapproving of management (if they haven’t already).

Further, if you ride one person hard but let another get away with murder, you’re asking for it. While you may have higher expectations of one or the other, inconsistency in how the team is treated fractures the team.

1c: Rewarding Jerks

When you reward someone who is not a team player and is constantly creating friction, and when they get away with just about anything, it’s a matter of time before either (a)people start acting like jerks or (b) they pack up their toys and go home.

If you find yourself in a position where you have to pick between two employees, it’s already too late and you should be wondering how that happened in the first place.

Bear in mind, treating a jerk and someone who is not a jerk the same when dealing with an altercation gives the jerk the high ground. Do that consistently, expect the non-jerk to walk. Maybe just spontaneously one day.

If you can’t identify a jerk, you have much larger problems. If you like the jerk, you’re a jerk – and if you don’t like the jerk and keep the jerk, you’re a jerk. Embrace it and stop reading here.

1d: Bad Priorities

You (hopefully) hired smart people, and while you may not show your cards, people can discern bad priorities when they see them – or worse, they can believe that it is a bad priority because your organization lacks the transparency for them to see it as good.

Tech folks generally like to feel like they are doing something of worth.

1e: Not Involving the Team in Big Decisions

This doesn’t mean that the team has to agree on everything, but if it’s a decision on how something will be done across the team, get input from the team as a whole. And if you have people who steal oxygen from meetings, make sure they don’t monopolize the time or frame things such that it’s their way or not.

1f: Lack of Growth

If you’ve hired people who don’t want to grow or help the team in greater ways, you hired wrong and you have larger problems. This is not to be confused with the Empire Builders – those that harden their position and are constantly finding ways to make themselves relevant in places where other team members might be greater assets.

1g: Influence Issues

Someone who has developed influence in your organization by hard work and perseverance is an asset, and while they will likely be resistant to changes you want to implement, if you leave them out of Big Decisions (see 1e) you may well be shooting yourself in the foot. If they don’t get upset, or suddenly stop becoming upset, they’re on their way out – which may or may not be good.

If you have someone who has accepted increasing responsibility, knows how things work that you don’t understand and has gotten in front of problems… you may not appreciate them because they’ve kept the flames from creating the tell-tale smoke signals. Unfortunately, when you smell smoke after they leave or just before they leave, it’s too late – so pay attention to how people get in front of problems.

1h: Money

Yeah, money had to make it in here somewhere but I purposefully left it down here as the last one. Why? Because if people are having trouble making ends meet they WILL look. If your tech people are having that problem, that’s a big glaring issue you will pay for if you don’t pay for.

Money isn’t as much of an issue as people make it out to be – the people who just want more money will likely leave anyway when they get a better offer, and you might be better off without them.

By the time someone starts comparing salaries, they’ve already decided to start looking. Even if you pay them more, they’re likely to leave anyway – except the unicorns. They do exist and typically negotiate more than money.

This post also made available on LinkedIn.

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