What We Ignore When We Talk About Diversity Programs

By Sy Islam, PhD, Vivian Woo, PhD, & Jenna-Lyn Roman, MS

On September 4th, the White House issued a memo to the heads of executive departments and agencies, directing them to identify and cancel “all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege,’ or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”

On September 29th, President Trump signed an executive order barring such training from all federal agencies, the military, contractors, and grant recipients.

On October 2nd, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued a memo pausing all diversity training programs in the executive branch until the OPM reviews and approves the training materials for compliance with the President’s executive order.

Even before the White House imposed its ideological litmus test for diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs, some people were questioning the overall effectiveness of these programs. For example, a recent review published in the Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted the differing findings of research studies on D&I training effectiveness. The results of some studies suggested that such training programs can help some individuals recognize their own biases. The results of other studies, however, suggest that D&I training has generally not improved outcomes, such as increased numbers of women and people of color (POC) in managerial positions.

Faced with continued criticism of the effectiveness of D&I training and the recent restrictions from the White House, some talent development professionals are understandably shocked and struggling to grapple with what all this means for their field.

As consultants with both academic and applied interests in D&I, we believe the current public discussion on these issues is too focused on training as a standalone intervention while ignoring the importance of organizational context. As we know from research on training effectiveness, training alone is usually an ineffective intervention. Organizations implement diversity and inclusion training for a variety of reasons and with varying levels of support. The context of training—how it is designed, delivered, and reinforced—matters. Criticizing the content of diversity training without considering the systems surrounding that training limits this discussion.

Check the Box or CYA

Many organizations treat D&I training as compliance training. Essentially, these organizations want employees to comply with rules around workplace interactions to limit organizational liability. While liability limitation is valuable motivation for organizations, it may not be a valuable motivator for employees.

Compliance training is often viewed by employees and their employers as ‘check-the-box’ training. When employees recognize that training is for the purpose of limiting their employers’ liability, they tend to lose motivation to engage with the material or apply what they’ve learned back on the job. As Salter and Roman wrote in a recent commentary, training will not create behavior change if individuals within the organization are resistant to the message.

Brand Management

Many organizations choose to implement training after a controversy. They take action because not taking action would damage the organization’s brand. The rationale for this approach seems to be that taking some action—indeed, any action—quickly is better than not taking action at all.

The most famous example in recent memory is Starbucks’ anti-bias training after their racial incident went viral. The training was delivered so quickly after the event that it seems hard to imagine there was enough time to conduct any serious needs analyses. Rather, it seems more reasonable to assume that the training was delivered primarily to deal with the organization’s PR problems in the aftermath of a highly publicized and potentially damaging incident. If, in fact, no needs analysis was conducted, there would be no way to determine if the issues had been addressed. Many organizations implement diversity training without a proper needs analysis, and as one of the authors has argued previously, a needs analysis is key to the success of any training program.

In some cases, training may not be the problem. For example, in some of the criticisms of diversity training, researchers argue that diversity training does not improve promotion outcomes. It is worth asking if the training was designed to do this? If the training was not in fact designed with the objective of increasing promotions of women and people of color into managerial roles, why would we expect that as an outcome?

No Reinforcement

Some organizations implement D&I trainings but fail to reinforce them by incentivizing inclusive employee behavior change after the fact. Indeed, if the training effort was triggered by a controversy, the organization may have no intention of following through with reinforcement. In these cases, the organization merely desires the patina of cultivating an inclusive diversity climate without expending any real effort to create an inclusive environment.

The training itself may be an example of espoused values rather than enacted values. Some organizations publicly proclaim their humanistic values while operating on purely financial metrics. The same is true of D&I training, which organizations may judge they are ‘required’ to provide without asking managers and employees to live by the values promoted in the training program. As is the case with many sexual harassment training programs, D&I training is often implemented simply to protect against legal liability. Without reinforcement or policy-based action, however, there is little behavior change within organizations.

One-Size-Fits-All Solution

Finally, one of the most important reasons organizations may not see benefits from D&I training is that their expectations are simply too high. The training may only be addressing a symptom caused by other problems. Research demonstrates that the more focused the goals of training or the design of the training, the more effective that training will be, but only for those goals; training alone is not a solution to long-standing problems in hiring, promotion, and organizational culture. It is simply one tool among many.

Rather than trying to defang D&I training programs by removing discussion of historical inequity, we should be encouraging organizations to view diversity as a function of organizational health and effectiveness. We should not be relying on training programs to function as magic pills for long-standing organizational problems; we believe that leaders should assess all their human resource processes through the lens of diversity and make broad, deep changes to create a truly inclusive culture.