This Is Why Diversity Programming Doesn’t Work

Most employers would agree that it doesn’t make sense to knowingly and consciously allocate resources to training that is, at best, limited in its effectiveness and, at worst, divides employees and makes them resentful of one another. And yet, this happens with regularity across a wide range of corporations and institutions by way of traditional diversity training programs.

Research that has attempted to examine the effectiveness of such programming in creating a more equitable workplace has consistently found it to be disappointing or even counterproductive, making it clear that traditional diversity training needs an overhaul. This is the second of a two-part series examining what’s wrong and how it might be fixed.

The first installment covered the ways in which these programs often end up being divisive. This effect is partly due to an insistence that all interactions be seen through the lens of race. In this line of thinking, any tense or strained interaction between two people who happen to be of different races is presumed to be difficult first and foremost because of racism and unconscious bias. While sometimes this is surely accurate, the approach doesn’t hold space for alternative explanations.

Alternative explanations are often given short shrift because the default charge of racism and unconscious bias can’t be disproven (or proven). For instance, if a white person at a meeting interrupts a Latino coworker, did the white person do so because the person is Latino? Possibly. But the interruption might be due to rudeness that’s independent of race. More difficult still, how can we know for sure? The answer is: We probably can’t. But the default assumption shapes the response nonetheless.

The universal application of the lens of race ties to a second problem raised previously, which is the sidelining of intent as a relevant factor in interactions that go sideways. However, any successful attempt to make the workplace environment more inclusive is going to have to recognize that, while having pure intent isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, motives have to be part of the conversation.

That brings us to the point of this second installment: the fatal flaw. Traditional diversity programming assumes that ignorance is why people differ in how they think about sensitive issues including microaggressions, diversity, affirmative action, or any number of other hot button issues. But here’s the reality: There is no training program that will get everyone to agree on these issues.

Yet, most traditional diversity programming has yet to engage with this realization. It operates under the assumption that people say things that offend others because they don’t know any better. The person saying the offensive thing doesn’t understand the history and the reasons why the thing they said might be hurtful, or so goes the argument. It follows that, if they understood why the utterance is offensive, they’d refrain from saying it in the future. While this may work for certain expressions that the vast majority of people would find offensive — for instance, “You don’t look American” — it won’t work for others — like, “I think the most qualified person should get the job.”

Employers could forcibly create a climate where everyone has a shared understanding of which comments and behaviors fall outside the realm of acceptability. For instance, they might explicitly delineate columns of acceptable and unacceptable verbiage and enforce penalties for transgressions. Or, they could decide to hire based on a candidate’s agreement with an explicitly-described workplace culture in which, for instance, intent doesn’t matter and feelings of being offended are always the most important factor. Either strategy might preclude many, if not all, of the problems described here.

However, both of those solutions are arguably worse than the problem they aim to solve and the leaders of organizations know it instinctively, which is why they don’t do it. Speech codes create a totalitarian environment where people fear they will lose their jobs for stepping out of line. Hiring based on agreement with an ethos about the irrelevance of intent runs the risk of groupthink — the innovation-killing mentality all corporations wish to avoid.

So we’re back where we started and only one solution remains — figuring out how to work with differences in how people think about sensitive concepts, including identity, fairness, the role of intent, and responsibility.

In this light, it’s easy to see why the current model of diversity programming isn’t achieving — indeed, why it can never achieve — its desired results. The good news is that there’s nothing standing in the way of the necessary overhaul other than a willingness to understand the flaws described here. Incorporating diverse viewpoints into how we think and talk about all of these difficult topics is doable. As a starting point, holding space for different perspectives on conversations about race, affirmative action, microaggressions, diversity, and a long list of other topics that emerge with increasing frequency requires keeping two broad questions in mind:

(1) How do we know what we think we know? To give a concrete example, how do we know that the white employee interrupted the Latino co-worker because the co-worker was Latino?

(2) What are the implications of being wrong? Or, what are the consequences for the overall climate if we assume the interruption was because of race and it wasn’t?

Reframing conversations around these two questions can go a long way toward improving how people communicate in the workplace and beyond.

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