Don’t Cancel Federal Diversity Training, Fix It

Our research shows that mandatory, cookie-cutter training with slides explaining “implicit bias” and other forms of discrimination are largely ineffective and sometimes counterproductive.

An older, white man we once interviewed as part of our research into diversity, equity, and inclusion training told us a story that illustrates why some—possibly most—such programs fail.

This man said he was berated by a white female colleague during a training at his institution in such harsh terms—she told him that “he and his kind” are the problem—that he got up and left after no one, including the chief DE&I officer at his institution who was present, stepped in to intervene. That session was clearly not effective for him and it left a bad taste in his mouth with regard to all DE&I training.

The sentiment behind this anecdote is spreading. Fox News personality Tucker Carson did a segment on his show during which he called diversity training programs in the federal government “garbage” and “poison,” after which President Donald Trump issued a directive to have all such programs cancelled, labeling them “divisive” and “un-American.”

Neither Trump nor Carlson nor any other commentators have offered an alternative for how we get from ineffective workplace training to the education, understanding, and reconciliation with regard to race relations many are crying out for in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others.

Our own research shows that mandatory online trainings or cookie-cutter seminars with slides explaining “implicit bias” and other forms of bias and discrimination are largely ineffective, and often counterproductive. What does work is a narrative approach where employees lead with the stories of their lives.

By telling our own stories and understanding those of others, we can arrive at a place of greater mutual understanding and, most importantly, trust. Based on our research, we feel that the only way up from the current low point of race relations in this country is through stories, which inherently lead to a sense of inclusion in the broader American experiment.

Ironically, one of the supposedly offending programs cited by Trump and Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley is called the “White Men’s Caucus on Eliminating Racism, Sexism and Homophobia in Organizations.” Run by White Men as Full Diversity Partners, the caucus invites white men to share their stories in order to explore and understand the privilege they have had in our society, and how they can eliminate discrimination in their workplaces.

We recently interviewed Michael Welp, one of the leaders of this group, and he is no radical flamethrower intent on ruining American culture—far from it. Welp is a thoughtful, soft-spoken man, who along with his partner Bill Proudman, has spent decades doing good work. Welp and Proudman feel strongly that if we are to improve race relations in this country, white people, and especially white men, must be allies and partners in this quest

Our work in post-apartheid South Africa has shown that when people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ages and socio-economic classes share their “real selves” with their colleagues, stereotypes are broken down, resulting in greater trust. Rather than an explicit “race-based” approach, a non-accusatory environment that stresses inclusion, honesty, integration and belonging is more effective.

The effective organizations that lead with this narrative approach stand out. One example, a large, multinational tech company we researched, somewhat accidentally discovered the way toward a more inclusive environment. Its diversity, inclusion and belonging officer has long encouraged employees, including top management, to tell their real-life stories without fear of punishment, embarrassment or judgment. Top officers in the company openly share their experiences with alcoholism, abuse and discrimination. Rank and file employees are encouraged to do the same. The result? Employees report high levels of job satisfaction.

While the wholesale trashing of diversity and inclusion initiatives in the federal government is clearly misguided, ineffective programs do need to be rethought and reformed, drawing lessons from those who embrace the human stories and experiences of their employees.

There are no shortcuts—no 45-minute “diversity and inclusion” training sessions, no slide decks—that will do the work of creating a truly inclusive, welcoming environment in all our institutions—including the federal government. There is only us, sharing our stories in the hope of a more equitable tomorrow.

Susan S. Harmeling is an associate professor of Clinical Entrepreneurship and an expert in business ethics at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and co-founder of Equitas Advisory Group, a new venture whose mission is to foster equity of opportunity for all employees.

Charles M. Henderson is a global diversity and leadership consultant in Johannesburg, South Africa, and co-founder of Equitas Advisory Group. He is also hard at work on his memoir, Heroin to Harvard to Happiness