How Biden administration can make federal diversity trainings actually work

It is important to reinstate diversity training right away, but also to fix what doesn’t work.

President Donald Trump has taken a number of actions over the past few months to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) training programs in the federal government and even at federal contractors. He even mentioned it in the presidential debate on September 29. At issue are terms like “white privilege,” “systemic racism” and “critical race theory” (CRT), an obscure academic framework that examines existing power structures in society with regard to race, law and power. He referred to CRT as “un-American” and Russell Vought, director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Trump administration, issued a call to “work with agencies to identify un-American trainings” and ferret them out wherever they exist.

It is true that diversity trainings are often ineffective and even counterproductive. Where President Trump is wrong is in thinking that the wholesale elimination of these trainings is the best remedy. They are necessary in order to retain and get the most out of our increasingly diverse workforce.

My colleagues and I have spent the past six months studying DE&I programs across the United States. We have looked at what works—and what doesn’t. We found three main mistakes that ineffective DE&I programs make:

1. Painting all white people, especially all white men, as racists.

During a DE&I training I once attended, I was seated at a lunch table with a white, middle-aged male colleague. What happened at that training tells the story of why some—and possibly most – such programs fail. During a break, the man was berated by a white, female colleague who told him that “he and his kind” are the problem, and that the white male patriarchy is essentially the root of all evil. She continued in such harsh terms that he politely asked her to please stop attacking him. When she didn’t, he got up and left after no one, including me — much to my regret — and the chief DE&I officer at this institution who was present, stepped in to intervene. That session was clearly not effective for him and has likely left a bad taste in his mouth with regard to all DE&I training.

2. Numbing the audience with a long slide deck.

Passive lectures that tell people what implicit bias or systemic racism are and then try to persuade attendees to recognize it in themselves do not work, and have even been found to be counterproductive. Presentation slides delivered by a facilitator standing at the front of the room don’t work as well as interactive training in general and, again, telling someone they are wrong or have something inherently wrong with them only increases defensiveness. It can even be argued that this is another form of discrimination.

3. Throwing unqualified trainers into difficult situations.

In the coaching world, prospecting for potential diversity-training clients has truly become like panning for the gold in the Wild West: alluring to opportunists with more ambition than sense. Consequently, the market is flooded with questionable trainers.When they don’t know what they are doing, things can go south rather quickly. A recent case of disastrous training for city employees in Austin, TX was such an unfortunate occurrence.

What does work?

I agree that a few trainings that take an “indoctrination” approach not only do not work, but also may spectacularly backfire. Trump’s own reaction to these failed diversity trainings is a prime example of this hidden danger.

There are, however, effective — and yes, wholly American — approaches to achieve the much-needed inclusion goals for our beautiful country. These types of well-received trainings involve two inseparable stages which are two sides of the same coin for good education: narrative and understanding.

My colleague, business school classmate and friend Charles Henderson was a heroin addict and convicted felon before he got a second chance in life, finished his associate degree, got into the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and then went on to graduate with an MBA from Harvard Business School. Over nearly 30 years of work in post-apartheid South Africa, Charles has led with the story of his own amazing life in order to bring about understanding and reconciliation in the companies and schools where he leads trainings on leadership, diversity and inclusion. He urges participants in DE&I training to share their stories and talk to each other about their challenges and their triumphs. Charles has found this narrative approach to be very effective and the only thing that leads to true understanding and greater cohesion among colleagues. And studies have shown that he’s right.

It is important to reinstate diversity training right away, but also to fix what doesn’t work. Trying to understand each other better is not “un-American” as Trump and others in his administration asserted. In fact, it’s the best path toward his stated goal of restoring American greatness.

Susan S. Harmeling is an Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California, an expert in business ethics and co-founder of Equitas Advisory Group

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