The Pernicious Problems of Diversity Training
For many of us who work in compliance, the crucial role of training in creating and maintaining diverse workplaces that are free of discrimination is abundantly clear. Since the enactment of Title VII that protects individuals from unfair discrimination in the workplace, the employment landscape of our nation has changed rapidly to more adequately reflect the multitude of identities and ways of being that exist in the national population.
However, we still have a long way to go. 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Last year, the EEOC filed 142 lawsuits alleging discrimination in the private sector, and secured more than $525 million for victims of discrimination in private, state and local government, and federal workplaces. It’s apparent that there are still individuals and organizations who either do not know about or do not prioritize diversity within their work culture, and compliance training is an excellent way to establish a common expectation of behavior.
Or is it? The complexity of human psychology often means that the simplest and most intuitive solutions don’t work. Last week we discussed the importance of diversity in the workplace. This week, we’ll look at the barriers to effective compliance training and how to address them in order to foster a diverse community.
Forcing managers to take diversity training can backfire.
The terms “diversity training” and “compliance training” are often conflated. Indeed, when diversity education is built into compliance requirements, diversity and compliance training may be one and the same. While this kind of bundling may appear convenient, it may not be the most effective. Without thoughtful implementation of each, neither one is particularly successful, or worse, are counterproductive. As an analysis of data collected from 800 firms over 30 years conducted by two professors of sociology showed:
[F]irms that put managers through diversity training and give them annual diversity ratings signal to those managers that they are the problem. Formal job tests and performance ratings that are used to stem bias send the message that managers can’t be trusted to make personnel decisions. Civil-rights grievance procedures signal that workers have to be protected from managers.
Of course, the solution is not to get rid of civil-rights grievance procedures which have been crucial in protecting basic freedoms. Nor is it to eliminate compliance training, leaving large swaths of people in the dark about their duties under the law.
What this analysis does suggest, however, is that organizations should use a program, instead of a single course, that is designed specifically to take into account the social and psychological context of its audience. An effective training program should identify which kinds of discourse are appropriate for compliance, and which kinds of discourse ought to be facilitated under non-compliance contexts. In addition to our current course catalog, LawRoom is in the process of developing a suite of courses that can be mixed and matched to create a program that’s right for your organization. Our Learning Management System and reporting allows administrators to assign, track progress, and analyze long-term trends.
Diversity training courses are often low quality.
Presumed fair: Ironic effects of organizational diversity structures, a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Kaiser et al.), explains that the effect of diversity training ironically reducing diversity happens at least partially due to training programs being “developed by human resource managers and self-professed diversity experts who have neither the training in theoretical and empirical issues from science on diversity nor the necessary background to evaluate the effects of these programs.” This means that using training built on strong research and instructional excellence is of utmost importance.
Diversity needs to be operationalized.
One big problem in training on these matters is that not many organizations use an operational definition of diversity. That is, they haven’t outlined what kind of diversity they want to foster and why. There are legal expectations that every organization is non-discriminatory of protected characteristics like gender or race, but that should generally be the minimum standard for a diverse workforce. Cognitive diversity may be just as important, but harder to operationalize. The Deloitte University Press suggests that hiring managers find the skill gaps in their operations, then hire with the specific goal of filling those gaps instead of picking the most overall qualified applicant. Often, gaps are difficult to define due to interconnected complexities. In such a case, Deloitte suggests hiring and encouraging opinionated employees who can bring fresh thinking to a problem, even if it means an overhaul of how things have generally been done. The potential disruption this may cause could also be viewed as growing pains.
Too many diversity initiatives talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.
A particularly difficult problem in establishing effective diversity structures is that organizations hyping their own commitment to diversity can actually reduce their diversity by instilling a false sense of security in not only its own personnel, but even the justice system. Kaiser and colleagues noted that an examination of more than “1,000 federal civil rights legal decisions over a 35-year period” indicated that “over time, judges increasingly showed deference to organizations’ diversity management structures.” This led to the conclusion that judges tended to assume that “the mere presence of diversity structures was evidence of an organization’s compliance with civil rights law, without questioning whether the structure actually provided protection for employees or more fair systems of governance.”
The most effective action an organization can take to increase its diversity is to create task forces and actively recruit diverse individuals for supervisory positions. A paper in the American Sociological Review concludes that:
Reforms that engage managers in recruiting and training women and minorities for management posts promote diversity. Those designed to control managerial bias lead to resistance and tend to backfire. Reforms that increase hiring and promotion transparency advance diversity by expanding the applicant pool and eliciting accountability. Accountability to diversity managers or federal regulators, moreover, leads managers to be more attentive to the effects of reforms, rendering discretion-control and transparency reforms more effective.
The implications of poor diversity training are massive. Organizations that use low-quality training that is designed primarily to “check the box” are not only ineffective, but actively causing harm. Choosing a training program that is thoughtfully structured and well-researched, operationalizing the definition of diversity, and bolstering training with active recruiting and mentoring initiatives are some solid ways to ensure that your organization is reaping the benefits of a diverse workforce.