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Jul 22, 2020
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen my native Los Angeles burn twice due to civil unrest caused by racism. In Spring 1992 I was taking my final exams at UCLA and preparing for my new job as a social worker in the very neighborhoods that smoldered. In Spring 2020 I’ve received a record number of inquiries from organizational leaders wanting help to respond to the outcry in the streets and among their employees. Many ask for training. 

I’m having déjà vu, and I see leaders poised to make the same old mistakes. 

As a 25-year veteran of the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) field, I tell leaders this ugly truth: diversity training doesn’t work. Unconscious bias training doesn’t work. Companies spend millions of dollars on expensive consultants and sexy programs every year with great fanfare and see zero change. Zero. I know, because for years, I was one of those expensive consultants. 

It is true that some come away from such training with new, life-changing awareness, and even some skills. I know that, too, because I’ve been on both the receiving and giving end of such breakthroughs. However, the ROI of such programs is low-to-nil (if it was even calculated), and the changes too small and unsustainable. 

Despite billions of dollars invested by organizations in diversity programs over three decades, representation of women and people of color in organizations and leadership positions has increased minimally, and in many cases is flat or declining. Employee engagement and overall work satisfaction is dismal. And up to 75% of underrepresented employees don’t feel they’ve personally benefited from their companies’ DEI programs. Furthermore, COVID-19 and civil unrest are uncovering how fragile our systems are — and how little progress has been made to create a world that works well for everyone.

10 Reasons Why Diversity and Bias Training Programs Don’t Work

  1. Insufficient assessment was conducted prior to training to identify an organization’s current state, desired state, and the most effective ways to close the gap.
  2. Training is designed and implemented without a clear understanding of the specific problem (the gap that needs closing).
  3. The specific problem can’t be solved by increasing individuals’ awareness or knowledge (which is all that training can provide).
  4. Training provides no skill-building or clear action plans for next steps.
  5. The organization provides no hardwired, ongoing opportunities to practice learning after training.
  6. There is no accountability for training action plans, or unrealistic expectations.
  7. The organization’s culture doesn’t support, or contradicts, the training content.
  8. The broader culture outside the workplace contradicts or undermines the training content.
  9. The organization has systems, processes, policies, and norms that undermine the training content, or are the true source of the problem.
  10. The organization has poor or ineffective leadership.

No savvy patient would go to the doctor, ask for a particular drug, and expect that doctor to simply write them a prescription. And no ethical, well-trained physician would write a prescription without taking a patient’s thorough medical history and running lab tests.

However, many well-intended leaders go to diversity consultants asking for training and expect to simply receive it without any diagnosis of the core issues the organization thinks training will solve. And many diversity consultants provide training and advice without first conducting a thorough diagnosis.

Similarly, no savvy consumer would ask their accountant or hairdresser for medical advice. Accountants and hairdressers have essential expertise, but not medical expertise. However, many leaders ask their employees, talent acquisition staff, learning and development professionals, or other leaders for advice on DEI — but usually those professionals don’t possess that expertise!   

So what happens is that smart, good people hire diversity consultants and training firms with good intentions. Then they see little to no change — or end up worse than they started — and conclude that diversity work in general (not just training) doesn’t work. Meanwhile, employees grow in their frustration and resistance, and sometimes cities burn. Again.

Here’s the truth: Leadership, organizational culture, systems, and policies drive individual behaviors exponentially more than any training program does. However, changing leadership, culture, and systems is harder to do. It requires more commitment and provides less feel-good photo ops. Here are three additional reasons that DEI initiatives beyond training commonly fail: 

  • The organization doesn’t listen to its people. It’s telling when organizations roll out “listening sessions” after a troubling event. This raises two questions: (1) Why weren’t leaders already listening? (2) What is going on in the culture — driven by leadership — that prevented people from speaking up before?
  • Leadership assigns DEI responsibility to HR or those most affected by inequities. Top leaders often turn to the one woman or person of color on the executive team to solve the problem, or they make it HR’s responsibility. This not only further burdens those who experience the greatest inequities, it reinforces the old-school notion that DEI is only for and about underrepresented groups, instead of being a strategic, business-critical imperative. I often ask executive teams who has the word “finance” in their title, and only the CFO’s hand goes up. Then I ask who manages finances, and everyone raise their hand. DEI is the same. It’s the responsibility of the entire executive team, not just the CHRO or CDO (chief diversity officer).
  • The organization wants consultants and trainers to do the managers’ job. I get regular calls asking for “training” to rehabilitate a person who is behaving badly at work. This is not a training issue. It’s a leadership and accountability issue that must be dealt with internally. Sending chronically “problem people” to training, or transferring them, is a classic example of “putting glitter on sh*t” and enabling a toxic culture that is allergic to equity and inclusion.

5 Ways to do DEI Right

We need to adopt a new mindset and do new behaviors to see meaningful change. Here’s the right approach to DEI that goes beyond impulsively rolling out training:

  1. Figure out where you are. What are your data in terms of how talent moves through your organization? How’s your employee engagement by demographics? How are your policies and talent processes supporting or undermining equity? How about your culture and its norms? What are your leaders’ levels of knowledge, skill, and commitment? It’s important to assess such competencies.
  2. Decide where you want to go. Just hiring more Black and brown bodies may not be possible depending on your geography and field. Equity goes far beyond the colors of the faces in your workforce. Build on the recommendations from the assessment to determine mission-critical goals that are in your control and a stretch, but doable.
  3. Identify why you want to go there. What’s your organization’s business case? How will those goals help you solve an existing pressing problem, or take you from good to great? How will they help your people do their jobs better, or get better results that already matter?
  4. Get your house in order. If you have a toxic culture, lack of buy-in from key stakeholders, poor leadership, poor accountability, or overworked employees, your DEI efforts are doomed. You can heal while you’re doing DEI, but neglect serious organizational deficits at your peril.
  5. Create a clear, step-by-step action plan. To create meaningful change, DEI efforts must include clear goals, metrics, timelines, and responsible parties who are held accountable. These efforts must not just live in HR or the diversity office. They must be driven by the CEO and executive team and cascaded throughout all levels and business units. The action plan may or may not include training, but if it does, it will be far better positioned for success after steps 1 to 4.

It’s up to us. Can we find the courage and commitment to do the work of true change? Or will our cities burn again in 30 years or less? Will we once again slap a glossy coat of paint on a rotting building … then act shocked when it collapses? It’s up to you.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.