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Here We Go Again! Why (the Right) Kind of Diversity Training Does Work

Over the last several years, we’ve been happy to see inclusion and diversity (I&D) efforts garner increasing attention. And while the underlying incidents and cultures of sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault that led to the #MeToo movement are horrible, the silver lining is that they have helped kick-start even greater awareness and action in business, media, government, and other spheres.

But, as with any movement around diversity and inclusion, there are often two steps forward and one step back. There are many who feel that empowerment is a zero-sum game: empowering one group means taking power away from another.

I wish one of these authors would start with the premise that there is a business-centric way for companies to create a culture of inclusion and value the diversity of their workforces. It seems they start with the premise of proving it doesn't work. Then they give examples of poor learning approaches to prove it doesn't work.

So, the latest is Kim Elsesser in Forbes, in her article “Is this the Answer to Diversity and Inclusion?”

She follows in a strong tradition in a series of articles before her by HBR, Fortune, even Psychology Today. But, here’s the thing; it's like anything else that's done. Not all learning or change management approaches are the same. We have found a way to crack the code. It's time consuming, hard work with a heavy emphasis on cultural change. It's not a dip and done learning approach.

To be fair, this most recent article makes some good points.

Understanding Implicit Bias (also referred to as Unconscious Bias)

There is a section of the article that really nails implicit bias and the first steps to combatting it: “In training, employees should be asked to reflect on their own biases,” says Elsesser. “They should be encouraged to recognize how human it is to categorize people. We all have notions of how women typically behave and how men typically behave, but we also need to remember that bias isn’t just about gender and race. Bias is everywhere.”

Well put, and we agree entirely. The first step to fighting bias is to recognize it. Without shame or blame. It’s a part of human nature. But it is a problem and needs to be addressed.

And this recognition is simply the starting point of the work. Coupled with inclusive leader competencies, application to business and action planning, there is high behavioral change as a result.

Embrace Diversity

The article also acknowledges that diversity doesn’t mean color-blindness. “Some say the solution [to eliminating bias] is to train employees to treat everyone the same regardless of race or gender or any other categorical differences,” Elsesser writes. “Others suggest the answer lies in recognizing differences between groups and therefore treating people differently. Wadhwa says neither is completely correct.”

Instead, the article rightly argues that while we can appreciate that “as human beings we are all more similar than we are different…we should strive to understand each individual for who they are.” I&D doesn’t mean pretending we’re all a post-racial, homogenously-cultured society. It means treating everyone as an individual, while embracing our differences, which may be cultural or stem from unique individual experiences.

Here’s the Piece We Take Issue With

Our issue with Elsesser’s piece is the overall theme of negativity she perceives in “current D&I initiatives.” Take this line, for example: "Basically, when the message to employees is ‘you’re broken and need to be fixed,’ they may become resentful, and hold on to their beliefs even more strongly."

This misses the entire point we at InclusionINC have been making for years. Inclusion and diversity isn’t about telling your employees how terrible they are and putting them through an I&D program to “fix” them. It’s always been about the benefits for the business. Don’t get us wrong; we believe embracing inclusion and diversity is the right thing to do. But we promote it first and foremost because it benefits the bottom line. Embracing I&D means bringing in diverse and varied perspectives on how to solve problems and run a company. It also means having a deeper and broader understanding of diverse markets.

Whether Elsesser’s article represents a misunderstanding of “current D&I initiatives” or actual flaws in prevailing I&D initiatives, the article’s underlying premise that these initiatives are wasting money and are ineffective is troubling and, we believe, misplaced. Through our work we know that some of these initiatives can make an impact because we’ve been there and done that! Here are some things that we, and our clients, have learned along the way:

  • Unconscious bias training by itself doesn’t work. We’ve always coupled it with validated inclusion behaviors, person and business action plans.

  • A one-time event for any type of training initiative isn’t going to work.

  • Doing diversity without inclusion is a lost cause.

The bottom line: yes, I&D training does work, when it’s done right. Be inclusive!


In Inclusion: STILL the Competitive Business Advantage, we continue our contributions to thought leadership on the importance of inclusion in an environment that has been roiled with new discussion—and new dissent—amid rapidly changing demographics, continually emerging technology and a global economy that is continually shifting to favor newly emerging market powerhouses. We're very gratified by the positive reviews already pouring in.

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