By Josephine Victoria Yam, J.D., LLM.

2019 January 29

Read time: 2 minutes

Despite their rhetoric of being diversity and inclusion champions, many global companies still get into big trouble for bias and racism.

Like Starbucks whose store manager in Philadelphia had two Black men arrested for trespass while they were waiting for a friend. Or H&M which released an ad of a black child wearing a hoodie with the slogan “coolest monkey in the jungle”.

So how did Starbucks and H&M address these monumental fiascos?

Starbucks closed its 8,000 U.S. stores and 1,100 Canadian stores to provide its 100,000 + employees with compulsory diversity training. H&M provided diversity and anti-racism training to its marketing management teams globally.

But is diversity training enough to reduce bias?

No, it’s not.

That’s the conclusion of the Harvard Business Review article, “Why Diversity Programs Fail”. In the article, authors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev observed:

“It shouldn’t be surprising that most diversity programs aren’t increasing diversity… It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two”.

Diversity training, the authors note, is an old, tired approach. It was designed in the 1960s to avoid anti-discrimination lawsuits. It uses negative messages framed with an implied threat. As in “You should not say this or you should not do that — or our company gets sued big-time”. Think Merrill Lynch that has paid about $500 million dollars to settle this type of lawsuits.

To this day, companies around the world require their employees to take diversity training. Unfortunately, many employees resent being “coerced” into taking such training. Ironically, instead of reducing bias, diversity training has activated their bias against under-represented groups like women and people of colour.

How can companies ensure that their diversity programs are actually reducing bias?

The authors advise companies to apply three fundamental principles in their diversity programs:

1. Engage

Engage employees in solving the lack of diversity problem in your organization. You can invite them to take part in diversity programs like campus recruitment programs or mentoring. These opportunities will reduce their biases because they see themselves as diversity champions.

2. Contact

Increase your employees’ contact to people different from themselves. You can sponsor their participation in board matching programs, which expose them to diverse people while they develop leadership skills. When they work side-by-side with people different from themselves, employees develop empathy for others.

3. Social Accountability

Tap into your employees’ desire to look good to others. You can select members of your company’s diversity task force from different departments. They can closely observe how managers are hiring and promoting people. When managers know that they need to explain their decisions to task force members, their decisions become less biased.

When you incorporate these principles into your corporate diversity strategy, your company moves miles away from the empty rhetoric of some global companies. And it moves miles closer to becoming a true and authentic diversity and inclusion champion.

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At a conference last week, I met the Board Chair of a nonprofit organization dedicated to children diagnosed with chronic medical illnesses.

During our chat, she asked: "Can our nonprofit avail of B3’s free board matching services to recruit diverse board members?" “Certainly," I responded, "and what type of diversity is your board looking for?”

"All types of diversity, but especially age diversity” she admitted. “Can you imagine that our nonprofit serves children? And yet, none of our board members is below 60 years old!”

And there’s the rub. Hers is a comment we hear many times.

Many large corporations already provide their employees with diversity training. After all, they know that diversity and inclusion (D&I) is a source of competitive advantage. According to McKinsey, companies with strong D&I cultures perform better than their competitors. They're better in attracting top talent. Better in customer understanding. Better in employee engagement and retention.

But is diversity training enough to change employee behaviour?

"Diversity and inclusion has become a CEO-level issue around the world," observed Deloitte in its 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report. "The era of diversity as a 'check the box' initiative owned by HR is over. CEOs must take ownership and drive accountability among leaders at all levels to close the gap between what is said and actual impact".

So what happens when a CEO does not prioritize diversity and inclusion?

Let's take the story of global retailer H&M as an example.


  • Alberta's Promise operates within the Government of Alberta’s Department of Human Services. With over 1,800 business, nonprofit and community partners, they help businesses connect with non-profits across Alberta to make meaningful contributions that benefit children and youth ages 0 to 24.

  • CanadaHelps is a nonprofit serving Canadian charities and donors. They increase charitable giving across Canada by making it easier to donate and fundraise online. Because CanadHelps is a charity, their fees are a fraction of for-profit alternatives, making donation dollars go further.

  • The Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations is a member-based nonprofit organization founded in 2002 in Edmonton, AB. They serve the nonprofit and charitable organizations in the Alberta Capital Region.

  • The Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) is the provincial network for the approximately 55,000 nonprofit organizations across Ontario. As a 7,000-strong provincial network, with a volunteer base of 300 sector leaders, ONN brings the diverse voices of the sector to government, funders and business to create and influence systemic change.

  • For over 62 years, Propellus has been supporting volunteers and volunteerism within the communities of Calgary. It strongly believes that volunteering is essential to creating and sustaining healthy, supportive and connected communities.

  • The Sustainability Network is a national organization that works with environmental nonprofits to make them more effective and efficient. Their mission is to enrich environmental leaders and nonprofit organizations so that they can help us all achieve sustainability.

  • Founded in 1943, Vantage Point delivers learning opportunities focused on governance, leadership, planning and people engagement for new and seasoned sector leaders, board directors and managers, aimed at advancing not-for-profit leadership.

  • Women Get On Board is a leading member-based company that connects, promotes and empowers women to corporate boards. They do this through an engaged community of women and men in Canada committed to advancing gender diversity in the boardroom.


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