IS DIVERSITY TRAINING ENOUGH?

By Josephine Victoria Yam, J.D., LLM.
2019 January 29

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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RELATED BLOG POSTS

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.

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