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Avoid the Common Traps of Diversity Training

By Jarik Conrad

One of the most dreaded phrases in Corporate America is “diversity training.” People’s eyes start to roll and they squirm in their seats at the demand, or mere suggestion, they attend. “I have already had that before,” is a typical reaction. They desperately search to fill their calendars with other responsibilities so they can miss the class. In response, trainers counter by giving the training fancy names like “inclusion” or “cultural competence training,” but when people realize this is simply a code name for diversity training, they still react unfavorably.

While this response is disheartening, it is quite understandable. Much of what organizations offer has been, at best, boring and unhelpful; damaging at worst. Effective diversity training challenges not only the participants, but the trainers as well. It can be difficult for trainers to present information objectively, because they often struggle with some of the same issues they are trying to address. It is sometimes evident in their body language, attitude and tone that they, too, have challenges understanding human dynamics.

While there are many approaches to developing and delivering effective diversity training, the first step for organizational leaders and individuals responsible for the training should be to avoid the most common pitfalls.

Too Little Focus on the Impact of Emotions: Failure to consider the role of emotions in recognizing and understanding relevant cultural differences is a common, costly mistake. Emotions shape our perspectives and distort our ability to analyze information accurately. In other words, they convert the objective to the subjective. Any training that does not acknowledge and identify the emotional framework under girding issues is useless.

Failure to Engage White Males: Many White males don’t consider themselves to have a culture, so when they hear talk of cultural issues, they tend to think of other groups. Some diversity trainers have perpetuated this fallacy by consciously or subconsciously presenting diversity as other than the White and male. For instance, they often refer to “protected classes” as including other racial groups and women, while the civil rights laws actually address race and gender. In other words, a man cannot be fired for being a man, and a White person cannot be fired for being a White person. They are, therefore, “protected.” In fact, consider other “protected” categories that white males could potentially belong to—veterans, the disabled and people over 40 years old. White males are truly diverse.

Lack of a Compelling Business Case: It is true that diversity training doesn’t always guarantee exceptional business results. However, nothing in business is guaranteed. The ability to attract and retain the best available talent, and the ability to understand and react to an increasingly diverse customer base is just the beginning of where diversity training can make an organization stronger.

Compliance Driven: Check-the-box training undermines the whole concept of diversity. If managers are implementing such programs just because they have been directed to do so, they are likely to implement them incorrectly, which will cause all sorts of problems. When things do not go right, people who say the organization didn’t need those programs anyway would feel reinforced in their beliefs. If someone does something just because you tell them to, in their haste to just get it done, they might miss opportunities to explore creative, innovative approaches beyond what they are directed to do in order to achieve the desired results.

Too Much Focus on Helping Whites Understand the Challenges of Others: All too often, the conscious or subconscious approach taken by human resources personnel, consultants and trainers is the idea of “fixing” White people. Whites are far from the only group struggling to understand and embrace diversity. In fact, not only do groups have difficulty understanding other groups, they often struggle with the diversity within their own groups as well.

Lack of Engagement from All Levels of Management: Having senior level management buy-in for diversity initiatives is crucial. The senior level sets the vision and determines the priorities for the organization. But they need to “walk the talk” as well. In other words, instead of purchasing tables at the local Martin Luther King Jr. celebration and sending members of the company’s diversity councils, they need to show up themselves. While senior management commitment is essential, many of the day-to-day decisions around hiring, training and career development actually happen at lower levels in organizations. In fact, the first-line and middle-management teams are often the main people threatened by diversity efforts.

Reactive, Not Proactive: It is common for organizations to introduce these initiatives when there have been complaints. After someone has threatened litigation is far too late in the game to start thinking about a diversity initiative. As with any potential source of competitive advantage, those who are ahead of the curve with diversity have a better chance of reaping the rewards faster. Being reactive with training and slow on implementation is the perfect recipe for never reaching the ultimate goal.

Failure to Make Difficult Decisions: Everything in this article hinges on one thing: what leaders do when times get tough. What do you do if your top salesperson has made some culturally insensitive remarks? What if a customer tells you he does not like to work with women? What if one of your direct reports goes on vacation as Michael and returns in two weeks as Michelle? How leaders handle these issues will make all of the difference between success and failure of any diversity training initiative.

On top of avoiding these common pitfalls, individuals responsible for the training must consider how it will be communicated to the organization, what goals will be established by what timeframes, and how progress will be measured. In other words, the training must be deliberate and strategic.

Read other articles and learn more about Jarik Conrad.

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