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
Failure to Engage
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.
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.
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
Failure to Make
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.
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about Jarik Conrad.
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